Refuse-Notes on artistic work as social waste

  • Publish On 11 January 2017
  • Nicolas Bourriaud

Following the art critic and theorist Nicolas Bourriaud, if we apply the contemporary creation of rudologie, the study of waste and decommissioning, would we see how art and its meanings are a supplemental part of this world, an equilibrium between its unproductive character and its claim to social utility? How these works are part of a production system and expand the work of artists, “among other professions,” in the ordinary flow of production? Finally, how the workplace is no longer a symbolic referent for artistic practice but its daily substrate?

Nicolas Bourriaud is an art historian, art critic, theorist and exhibition curator. Since 2016, he is the director of the future Montpellier Contemporain (MoCo).

In a forthcoming essay, I try to show that artists of our time, by manipulating the signs of popular culture in a critical and hermeneutical perspective, appear to be the last generation of the Maoist mass line, through the invention of Anglo-Saxon critical studies in the 1960s.

The practice of art, like the meanings it produces, takes its place in the world of waste: it forms an additional world. The very form of labor, in this ideological context, belongs to the world of waste.

Indexical paradigm

In the seminal text Traces, dating from 1979, Carlo Ginzburg tells of the emergence in the late nineteenth century, of what he calls the “indexical paradigm”, a new epistemological model that consists of taking into consideration the most insignificant clues. It developed in art history before influencing psychoanalysis, but one can perceive its presence in the detective story or in philosophy. “Even infinitesimal traces,” Ginzburg writes, “capture a deeper reality, otherwise unattainableCarlo Ginzburg, Mythes. Emblèmes. Traces – Morphologie et histoire, Verdier Poche, Paris, 2010, p. 232.. In the novels of Conan Doyle, as in the work on attribution in Italian painting by the art historian Giovanni Morelli, a way of thinking is set up that focuses on aspects of reality that are totally neglected, those on the periphery of our attention. In art, it is also the least important parts of the painting, the details that the artist carries out mechanically and without thinking (the hair, nails, the shape of an ear or of a finger…) that allowed Morelli to identify with certainty a particular artist. Symptoms, clues, pictorial signs: the “indexical paradigm” is a medical semiotic and a science of diagnosis, as well as the patient art of a detective. Ginzburg identifies the sources in the timeless experience of the hunt—where one witnesses the practice of the decryption of silent or imperceptible traces of the animal being hunted—as well as in the constitution of the concept of symptom in Hippocratic medicine.

This indexical knowledge shares certain characteristics with the more traditional divinatory methods, so much so that the dazzling intuitions of Sherlock Holmes or the research of Morelli can be thought of as “retrospective prophecies.” But there where divination, or mantique, seeks to “analyze fingerprints, the stars, excrement (animal or human), mucus, corneas, nails, impulses, snowfields or cigarette ashesIci et citation suivante : Ibid., p. 279. to predict the future, it is in order to reconstruct the past that circumstantial knowledge is used to question them. Aby Warburg saw the art historian as a “necromancer” able to resuscitate the characteristics of the past in the forms of the present…

Within a system of culturally conditioned signs such as painting, Morelli sought to find signs that had the involuntary nature of symptoms”: in other words, it is in the least intentional traces, details, scribbles, technique in painting hair or hands, that we perceive the mark of the deep personality of an artist. This original focus on the unconscious detail brings to mind of course psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud, in his essay on The Moses of Michelangelo, revealed his debt to Morelli, whom he had read, from the early 1880s, in a series of articles on the Italian Renaissance, that Morelli had signed with the pseudonym Ivan Lermolieff. “Closely related to the technique of medical psychoanalysis,” Morelli’s method, he writes, is “also authorized to divine secret and hidden things from underestimated or neglected features, from rubbish – from waste – from observationSigmund Freud, « Le Moïse de Michel-Ange », 1914, in L’Inquiétante étrangeté et autres essais, p. 103. cité par Carlo Ginzburg, op. cit., p. 226.. This “rubbish” and “waste” of observation, historical as much as medical, would become the very materials of psychoanalysis. It would also subsequently be transposed—on a social level—on to the philosophical objects studied by Siegfried Kracauer (the detective novel, hotel lobbies, the cabaret) or Walter Benjamin (the arcades, movies, childrens books).

"Paysage professionnel", 1964 © Jacques Charlier

In 1964, Jacques Charlier was an employee of the city of Liege in Belgium. He teamed up with a man named André Bertrand, whose job it was to scout locations for photos or to follow the construction of public works undertaken by the municipality. As an artist, Charlier would “remove from their context” these photographs, as well as other documents—timesheets, group portraits of the administrative department, records—to make the raw material of his exhibitions. His Professional landscapes, the generic title for the series of black and white photographs that he hung in large frames, show trenches of a pipeline, details of the roadway, deserted intersections… They evoke with irony the work of Bernd & Hilla Becher, who invented in 1959 a systematic conceptual device documenting industrial architecture, furnaces, factories and water towers. Charlier was however quite critical of the work undertaken by Becher, who, according to him, erased the political reality in a context too “beautified”. The buildings they photographed, he explained, revealed neither a sculpture, nor an “anonymous” effort: “They are indeed industrial tools that have been made by assembly workers … designed by engineers… managed by factory owners. All these people have a name … a story. Obscuring them […] is part of the regular process of artistic appropriationJacques Charlier, Dans les règles de l’art, Lebeer Hossmann, Bruxelles, 1983, p. 43..

"Gas Tanks", 1983-1992, © Bernd and Hila Becher

The argument of analyzing the artistic appropriation of the object in terms of the expropriation of those who developed it in their working environment can be seen, at the same time period, in the work of Joseph Beuys on the urinal of Marcel Duchamp: the worker who extracted the kaolin used to manufacture it is as much a “creator” than he who signs the work or who exhibits it. Both practice a “styling” (gestaltung) that “causes all the fields of force in society and all work settingsJoseph Beuys, Par la présente, je n’appartiens pas à l’art, L’Arche, Paris, 1988, p. 59.”. Charlier, like Beuys, insisted that the artist’s duty was not to conceal the production process, not to isolate the object aesthetically, but, in other terms, to consider themselves in the middle of an expanded productive system, not above it.

Objective means and utility

Thirty years later, in 1993, Maurizio Cattelan showed a work at the Biennale in Venice entitled Lavorare è un brutto mestiere (Work is a dirty business): he rented space put at his disposal to present his work to a PR firm, who in turn used it for an advertising campaign. Cattelan’s gesture shows how the relationship of the artist to the world of work had changed completely: he or she is a “professional” among other things, who may call into play various trades, abandoning any symbolic claim to reveal the productive structure in favor of realism (sometimes verging on cynicism) and with the aim of inserting his or her work into the regular flow of production. In other words, the world of work is no longer a symbolic referent for artistic practice: it forms its daily substratum. In the same way, Cattelan depicted the artist as a tenant of an exhibition space that could be sublet …

Had not Alighiero Boetti, in the early 1970s, shifted production of his carpets to Afghanistan and then to Pakistan?

The relationship between the artist and the mode of work is the very structure of artistic evolution: in other words, art has always been “informed” by the world of work. Artistic modernity of the late nineteenth century appeared when this relationship needed to be problematized pictorially: art was now spurred on by the competition from photography, as a single supplement or as a socially useless activity. It is from this that one can understand the ideology of modernist painters—from the Pole Wladyslaw Strzeminski (1893-1952) to the  American Frank Stella—who sought in their practice of painting the “objective means” allowing them to transfer the colored material of the tube to the canvas: “objective”, that is to say set within a productivity linked to general production, i.e., contemporary with the economic system in which they lived. Art, from the mid-nineteenth century, must  problematize its relationship to social production: either by accepting the “art for art’s sake”,  by giving meaning to the useless, or by connecting to the productive system in one way or another.

At one end of this landscape, Andy Warhol moved in the universe of the factory in identifying himself openly with a “machine” or a “camera”. At the opposite pole, Robert Filliou saw himself as a citizen of a “Republic of Genius” composed of idle and meditative “bistro geniuses”. Whatever the position taken by the artists—frontal opposition or mimetic relationship—it is from this equation that the beginnings of modernity date: art, held back from the social body or threatened to be, no longer is an appendix of society, a more or less legitimate supplement of the productive system. Accepting its ornamental or unproductive character, the attempt was to promote art as the oxygen of a suffocated and reified system. Claiming social usefulness with an affiliation to an ontology of democracy, it would aim rather to impose the principles of its need by remaining closer to the production process.

With regard to work, one can certainly say that it cuts up and fragments reality. Nature is initially controlled for productive purposes, then human labor itself, first as products (trade), and finally as an activity and a sum of information. To work is to segment reality from infinity. One can also say that it is always subject to an end, or that it is organized with a view to its final state. Among the most remarkable attempts to think in the sphere of the useless, the “accursed share” of human activity, that of Georges Bataille, is all the more present as it clearly identifies a vast realm of reality that had never before been thought of as such. He invented heterology, the “science of what is different”, as part of a declaration of a philosophical war against idealism in all its forms. While it does not take into account garbage and waste, religious ecstasy and erotic pleasure, the flow of tears and body fluids, every thought is marked by idealism. In Bataille’s vision, that which is playful—like eroticism, mysticism and art—is also attached to the sphere of extravagant spending, to the level of this heterology that is anything that does not belong to the “sphere of utility. ” Human activity does not necessarily have any “gain” as an outlook; it may refuse to be subservient to an intended purpose. For Bataille, the first principle of economics is not the accumulation of goods, but the potlatch, in which the Indian tribes of North America competed in the distribution of their most valuable property. This is the “accursed share” of human economy: the practice of the “loss” which is irreducible to the production-consumption pairing and affects the irrational and the existential implementation in which Bataille included “luxury, mourning, wars, religions, games, entertainment, the arts, perverse sexual activity (i.e., that which doesn’t serve to reproduce)Georges Bataille,« La notion de dépense », in La part maudite, Les Éditions de Minuit, 2007, p.27”..

Artistic modernity since the mid-nineteenth century was built around a central purpose: utility. In essence, by opposing its dictates, by fighting to preserve a poetic area within the sphere of utility, but sometimes also by identifying with its forms and principles, the Bauhaus or Russian Constructivism worked out a theory of art to be integrated into general productivism, seeking to soak up in a sustainable way the scenery of everyday life. The fact remains that the presence of art in a given society, its recognition by the institutional and ideological apparatuses which it has adopted, depends on the local inflections of the issue of utility, which draws a demarcation line between the product (its use), and waste, which must be rejected and left out. This invisible line—though active at all levels of social organization—draws the outline of a movable zone whose boundary is constantly crossed in both directions: a temporary category, and especially largely arbitrary, that of waste is subject to endless renegotiations. In the field of cultural production, as we have seen, it is the route of this line of division that the camp of cultural studies settles, like an airlock between two territories of the functional and of the derisory, a unit of recycling that persistently questions the validity of judgments that send a particular object into the abyss. The problem of waste has become so central to the socio-economic life that, recently, a science has been devoted to it: rudology. From the Latin word rudus (“rubble”), waste is considered an object of analysis for understanding the economic spheres and the social practices, focusing on the process of devaluation of the products generated by human activity, as well as its reprocessing techniques. Rudology is thus linked to society by its marginal traces, joining the method with which Georges Bataille explored the depths of the collective psychology, like that of Walter Benjamin who tried to rebuild the idealogical cathedral of the nineteenth century with the scattered fragments collected in the Parisian arcades.

Among the artistic movements of the twentieth century—at least before the Situationist International—surrealism is certainly the one whose aesthetic project rose up with the greatest virulence against the supremacy of utility. The surrealist work, though the term represented for them toil and money, presents itself as a remnant of dream activity, that is to say a system of mind resistant to any social recovery. The irrational surrealist was a declaration of war against the practical world, from the guilty reasoning to the belonging to the camp of work and of industry. In this, the movement led by André Breton noted its debt to Dadaism, but he augmented it with a nostalgic iconography, deliberately turned towards the rubble of the past,  nourished by frequent walks in the flea markets on the outskirts of Paris: the obsolete thus appeared to be the main ferment of surrealist fantasy, which did not fail to point to Walter Benjamin, who noted the interest of the members of this movement in the most obsolete of iconographic forms.

The major project of the New Realism was the constitution of an archeology of the present, through the adventures of mass production and its social use. The work of Jacques Villeglé, an “urban comedy” which traces the history of France from the end of World War II, as reported by the “lacerated anonymous”, appears here as emblematic. Benjamin Buchloh saw in the work of Raymond Hains, Jacques Villeglé, and Mimmo Rotella a radical rethinking of the figure of the artist by the social group-subject. Villeglé was seen by the American critic as the harbinger of an entirely new attitude: “By consciously denying its traditional role, he gave way to a collective gesture of productivity which, in the historical context of Villeglé, was that of a silent aggression against the state of imposed alienation.Benjamin Buchloh, Essais historiques II, Art édition, Lyon, 1992, p. 44. This notion of “limited production”—continued in the work of Buchloh—paved the way for the work of Stanley Brouwn, Marcel Broodthaers and Bernd and Hilla Becher. The notion of the author thus destroyed, the artist becomes a collector, an objective associate of the collective production. On this subject, one can argue that it is now more than ever present: most artists are  compilers, analysts or remixers of mass culture or of the media-industrial production. If they do not share the formal style of New Realism, artists like Mike Kelley, Jeremy Deller Sam Durant fall in the shadow of Raymond Hains and Jacques Villeglé, and lend their artistic silhouette to the legendary “rag-picker” described by Baudelaire: “all that the great city rejected, all that he has lost, everything he despised, everything that was broken, he cataloged and collected. He consulted the archives of debauchery, of the jumbled array of refuse.« Du Vin et du Haschish », in Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, Payot, Paris, p. 117.”

Reconcile product and waste

A series of works by John Miller, carried out between 1990 and 1993, is made up of  collections of trinkets, plastic toys, gadgets and utensils, inserted into a solid wave of brownish material, a kind of impasto of excrement. Miller sought to comment on the Marxist conception of waste, and to bring to its logical end the idea that the sphere of utility is art: a flood of feces.

The success of political ecology, the imagination of contemporary writers and filmmakers, but also the processes and forms used by artists, allow us to depict the contemporary world as a material world invaded by filth, threaded by multiple aspects of insecurity and by the rapid expiration of its products, saturated by supplements and weeds. We find an iconic image in Wall-E, from Pixar, whose main character is a zealous robot, busy cleaning up a world deserted by its inhabitants and choked by its trash. In cultural terms, the archive has emerged today as a proliferating and bulky material, museums confronted with storage problems, the mass of objects produced annually exceeds the capacity of storage and sorting by individuals. At the industrial level, companies outsource with a vengeance in order to find cheaper labor, confining millions of Chinese or Romanian workers to semi-slavery located as far as possible from the places of consumption: the massive downsizing and the decline in social protection policies, and well as the laws governing immigration, lead to the formation of exclusion zones teeming with human excess, undocumented workers and the long-term unemployed. But it is in finance that the imaginary of waste is now in its most flamboyant mode of expression. From junk bonds to toxic assets, it now seems overrun with harmful materials, financial products of waste, buried deeper and deeper into the balance sheets of obscure subsidiaries or concealed by pooled portfolios… It is in this virtual economy that the reality of the globalized world is revealed more clearly: obsessed by the specter of the unproductive and the unprofitable, abhorring those people and things that are not at work, or not about to be, it sends them to the rubbish heap. This is the essence of the “bare life” described by Giorgio Agamben: the deportees, refugees, exiles, all excluded from the contemporary “biopolitics”.

In “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”, Walter Benjamin draws a parallel between assembly line work and gambling. In both cases, he writes, the process is always starting over. Nothing remains in the morning of yesterday’s work, and the roulette wheel has no more sense of memory: the gambler, like the worker, resumes his or her daily activity on the carpet. “If the act of the worker who operates a machine is not linked to the previous activity, it is precisely because it is nothing more than strict repetition. Each movement is as separate as that which preceded it, like a fluke following anotherWalter Benjamin, “Sur quelques thèmes Baudelairiens”, in Essais 2, Denoël–Gonthier, Paris, 1971, p. 173.. A negation of the experience, therefore of the  acquired knowledge, and thus clear of any waste, the lottery of the modern world excludes any accumulation: the industrial dream could not be better described as one which has developed the fantasy of a world from where all waste is removed, relegated to obscure underground worlds, forever invisible. Our epoch is in this repression the very foundation of its phantasmagoria: oriented around two opposite poles that represent, on one side, a world without rest, built as a factory for the living and cleaned by design; and the other side its fascination for the discharge, the favelas and, more generally, all that is seen pushed out to the gates of the under-privileged suburbs—the migrant, the nomad, the filth or the outdated. We may rightly express surprise by such a list, which includes humans and objects in the same category. But precisely what characterizes the contemporary document of waste is that it does not bother with such details. On this specific point—on another level than that on which it took place during the modernist period—one brings together the age-old opposition between art and work: the fact remains that unlike the latter, art denies the existence of waste as such. The work of art draws its strength to engage in both categories, to establish both a product and waste. The task of the artist is, without saying so, to reconcile these two worlds. And if art arouses so much controversy in industrial and post-industrial civilizations, it is precisely because as a social undertaking, it was linked to the useless.

The new proletariat is no longer found in the factories, it now appears across the entire social body and brings together a huge mass of the divested. There is always, of course, an “economy of the impurity”: one that involves movers, fish scalers, cleaning agents or knackers, i.e., that social category that represents the “untouchables” of the Indian subcontinent. If we once defined the proletariat as workers stripped of their labor force, a property that the “the man of forty crowns” can buy, the globalized world has expanded this definition to all those who are now deprived of their experience whatsoever. The proletarian is the pure consumer of the world, whose original plot of land (like those that Ford had provided for its workers to use in their free time) has spread to the huge dimensions of the “world of leisure,”. But in fact, the concept invented by the Ford notion of capitalism has not really changed: free time is linked to the world of work. Entertainment is the logical extension of paid employment, the exact opposite, and thus represents a variation of the capitalist negation of waste, i.e., contemporary leisure was designed to deny any supplement to laborious life. Leisure prolongs work as recycling extends the industrial production.

In 1855, when Gustave Courbet exhibited his works outside of the official Salon, in his “Pavilion of Realism,” a vast painting caught one’s attention, starting with its title: The Artist’s Studio: A Real Allegory of a Seven Year Phase in my Artistic and Moral Life. This was the representation not simply of a workplace, but a space-time of production, which embodied, according to its author, “the moral and physical history of [his] studio.” The small crowd of people surrounding the painter, who is shown busy painting a landscape, consists of his “shareholders, that is to say, friends, workers, lovers of the art world”, to his right; on the left, the social reality, represented by characters also involved in Courbet’s life. It is important to note that each of these figures represents a real person, not a synthetic symbol. The Realism, that Courbet claims, is not the search for a likeness, nor the pursuit of the idea, but a direct relationship to real experience. The mysterious “allegory” in the title indicates that we are at the other end of all symbolism: “Historical art”, he says, “is by nature contemporaryYoussef Ishaghpour, Courbet, Le Portrait de l’artiste dans son atelier, Circé, Paris, 2011, p. 25-26..” Linda Nochlin sees The Artist’s Studio as an allegory depicting “the Fourierist idea of the association of capital, labor and talentLinda Nochlin, Les Politiques de la Vision, Jacqueline Chambon, Nîmes, 1995, p. 33..

"Un dimanche après-midi à l'île de la Grande Jatte", 1884 © Georges Seurat

With Courbet, but even more explicitly with Georges Seurat, Sunday is already present as a residual figure of work, its complicit opposite. The mechanical appearance of the Sunday walkers in An Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1883) introduced the dehumanization of leisure, and the nearby Paris suburbs began to look like human discharge, of a waste land where one went through the geometric gestures of rest or the amusement of the masses. Over a century later, John Miller made an extensive series of photographs, untitled, whose common denominator was that they were all taken between noon and two o’clock in the afternoon, during the lunch break. In a reversal of the gesture of Jacques Charlier, Miller shows that leisure has become an integral part of the world of work: therefore they belong, refracted by the optical tools of art, to that of waste.

(This article was published in Stream 02 in 2012.)




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