ART & COMMERCE: Ecology Beyond Spectatorship

by Christopher Kulendran Thomas

The particular formation of art that has come to be known as Contemporary Art came about in the television age as a cultural form that was specifically for spectatorship. However today’s most ubiquitous networked media platforms (like Google or Facebook to site the most obvious examples) take us not simply as their spectators but as their very materials for all sorts of algorithmically data-processed purposes that remain mostly invisible. These networks can be understood as sites of intersection between human and non-human materiality. They are what the philosopher Timothy Morton might call ‘hyper-objects’ – so massively distributed in time and space as to transcend localization and therefore too dispersed to be seen in their entirety.1 They are effectively beyond spectatorship.

In order to understand the possibilities of art beyond spectatorship, it might be worth looking at where Contemporary Art’s particular modality of emancipated spectatorship came from. And this is a history of Contemporary Art which begins over two centuries ago with Immanuel Kant:

“Up to now it has been assumed that all our cognition must conform to the objects; but all attempts to find out something about them a priori through concepts that would extend our cognition have, on this presupposition, come to nothing. Hence let us once try whether we do not get farther with the problems of metaphysics by assuming that the objects must conform to our cognition…”
– Immanuel Kant (1781), Preface to Critique of Pure Reason2

Kant concludes that objective knowledge can’t be possible outside human experience. If science decentered mankind in the universe, then Kant compensates for this by deciding that reality could only be correlated to, and accessed from, human experience. In the words of the physicist and new realist philosopher Gabriel Catren (writing recently), Kant’s assertion of human autonomy serves only to “preserve the pre-modern landscape and stitch up the cosmological narcissistic wound” of man de-centered through Enlightenment science’s Copernican Revolution3. Kant thereby sets the parameters for what philosopher Graham Harman has called the ‘philosophy of access’ or what Quentin Meillesoux calls ‘correlationism’4. And this two-hundred year trajectory of continental philosophy from Kant’s compensating humanist injunction upon thought lays out the path to Contemporary Art and the world that it inhabited based on a romantic assumption of mankind at the center of reality. But to really understand the humanist romanticism upon which Contemporary Art was founded, let’s turn to its original ‘creative act’:

“The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”
– Marcel Duchamp (1957), The Creative Act5

Duchamp shifted the precise location of art from production to interpretation and with this he enacted into art the Kantian fantasy that reality is produced by human experience. Duchamp’s formulation of ‘The Creative Act’ meant that, in Kantian terms, we could access the artwork only through our subjective relation to it, that art “must be refined as pure sugar from molasses by the spectator”. The reality of art was thereby limited to the viewer’s experience of it, with art’s consequences possible only through interpretation.

Duchamp articulated this formulation of ‘The Creative Act’ forty years after the original controversy of his Fountain and it is at this time that his ideas were widely adopted through Pop Art’s precursors. There are several published accounts,6 as well as last year’s Duchamp exhibition at London’s Barbican, chronicling Duchamp’s influence on Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage, who reinvigorated interest in him. And then with Warhol’s own ‘readymades’, Duchamp’s ‘art coefficient’ was adopted as the basic logic of what would eventually become Contemporary Art. Rejecting what was perceived as the elitist specialist language of abstraction, art now favored the vernacular language of mass media. Derailing Clement Greenberg’s aspirations to determine art’s terms of production, this new configuration of art prioritized the viewer’s interpretation of it rather than the specified criteria of any abstract language. This paradigm shift instilled in art, for half a century, Kant’s ‘philosophy of access’ – with no reality of art acknowledged outside our access to it. Or to put it another way, art was understood as being completed by our individual interpretation and its consequences limited to our experience of it. And this openness toward interpretive pluralism pre-figured the world that was to come, even though Contemporary Art’s own discourse typically sidelined art’s dependences and consequences beyond spectatorship as corrupting influences seeking to instrumentalize its freedoms.

Although the term ‘contemporary’ has been used throughout the second half of the last century to describe the art being made at the time, I would suggest that our usage of the term now refers more specifically to the particular ideological formation of art that emerged from the deregulation of financial services by the likes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and the collapse of Communism as a viable political alternative at the end of that decade. Suhail Malik’s research at CCS Bard provides a good analysis of the underlying logic of this art historical paradigm but, for the purpose of this argument, we can understand Contemporary Art as historically situated in the era of global neoliberalism, or the mode of governmentality whereby the state is dispersed through the individual.7 This was the world that Contemporary Art needed and its global ideology of non-ideology produced a Contemporary Art boom with, in Britain for example, the first generation of wealthy young hedge fund managers providing the initial market for YBA in the Nineties (later followed by Russian oligarchs, middle Eastern wealth into the Noughties and then the emerging markets of China and then Brazil through the global financial crisis). Despite their nominally oppositional politics, these Young British Artists were the children of Thatcher and wasted no time in forging an immediate relationship with their audience and their market. Taking control of their early trajectories with a proliferation of artist-run spaces, they dealt in the vernacular language of mass media and played out their careers in the mainstream press. Absorbing the model of the hedge fund manager who operates outside the financial district of the City of London’s aristocratic rules and institutionalized competences, artist-run spaces and a new generation of peer-group commercial galleries transformed the ecology of the art system.

From My Skin Is At War With A World Of Data, Kate Cooper, Marianne Forrest, Andrew Kerton and Jess Wiesner / Auto Italia South East

From My Skin Is At War With A World Of Data, Kate Cooper, Marianne Forrest, Andrew Kerton and Jess Wiesner / Auto Italia South East

Whilst the wealth produced by deregulated free markets created the perfect context for Contemporary Art, cultural-economic feedback started to flow in the other direction too as the model of the (now superstar) artist was adopted throughout the new ‘cultural industries’ and then the wider economy as a model for insecure labor. Meanwhile Sir Nicolas Serota’s revolution in remaking museums successfully repositioned Contemporary Art (with that term now in widespread circulation) as a popular entertainment experience. The example of Tate Modern was adopted around the world to re-imagine art institutions as retail propositions in line with an emancipatory social program to engage broad audiences in culture as a leisure market. But art was also instrumentalized more directly:

  1. onto the front-line of urban-rebranding, with public art regenerating town centers all over the world
  2. onto the Corporate Social Responsibility programs of most major corporations
  3. through the education or community requirements of art institutions, co-opting social practice as social work

The crucial point here is that art has always produced its reality structurally and not just through its viewers interpretation. However the ways in which art makes its world economically, institutionally and infrastructurally are typically disavowed when discussing Contemporary Art in favor of prioritizing what art does for the viewer as the only consequences of art worth talking about.

Contemporary Art’s fantasy that its consequences are only for our interpretation requires a suspension of disbelief tantamount to that required by the most absurd Hollywood movies. Meanwhile, Contemporary Art continues to prototype the exploitation of immaterial labor whilst selling critique as an elitist commodity that provides easy listening for the failed political Left. And the romantic myth worth dispelling here is that art originates in its initial purity, only to be corrupted by its market. One need only look at how innovations in Tuscan banking begat the Italian renaissance to understand how art has always been prefigured by its market. We tend to get the art that new markets need and by 2006, Contemporary Art had become a very sophisticated system of value creation with the turbo-charged art system that emerged during the preceding financial boom requiring artists to provide – at its peak – around $60 billion a year (according to worth of window-dressing for art’s three main economic functions:

  1. the acquiring of status
  2. the cleansing of conscience and
  3. and the sheltering of tax

And it may once have seemed as though Contemporary Art would continue its biennializing expansion forever, as sure as the neoliberal certainty that the era of big government was over. Contemporary Art was seen at the time as a universal, non-specific non-genre, just as it’s neoliberal world was sold as the product of non-ideological, pragmatic economic strategies. But, as the consequences of 2007’s US subprime mortgage crisis unfolded into a global recession, the world’s strongest new super-economies (and eventually the US itself) grew through massive state intervention as the economic rationale for the neoliberal project collapsed, leaving only a diminished quasi-religious belief in markets in its place. But looking outside the envelope of this consumption bubble we could see that both Contemporary Art and neoliberalism perpetuated a very particular (and pretty much identical) type of subjectivity – both interpellating the viewer / consumer / citizen as a liberated, autonomous individual. And it’s exactly this Kantian subjectivity that we artists have become experts in producing by addressing our viewers through work that’s for interpretation, with space for the viewer to be free to experience art on their own individual terms. Kant’s paradigm that reality can only be correlated to our experience of it has produced a myth (with no scientific basis) that mankind is ontologically distinct to all that is not mankind, with our cognition privileged over the interdependencies and contingencies of a world that is not actually dependent on us. This myth is replicated in Contemporary Art’s architecture of spectatorship, organized with us at its center, and requiring us to complete its reality.

So how can we understand our place in the world beyond the fantasy of individual autonomy – the fictional freedom – upon which Contemporary Art’s paradigm of emancipated spectatorship is based? The work of Berlin-based artist Timur Si-Qin, for example, channels immediately recognizable commercial imagery based on the criteria that these images are highly evolved from nature through branding, streamlined to circulate most efficiently. Tuned into biological responses from potentially beyond the 200,000 years of the human race, this work prompts an expanded art historical timescale. In his recent book After Art, David Joselit claims that the Greenbergian modernist prioritization of artistic autonomy was a temporary historical glitch against the proliferation of icons, from the religious icons of the past to the internet memes of today’s image explosion8. In line with this idea, I would like to tentatively indicate an alternative history of modernism that predates its co-option by Clement Greenberg as the practice of individual autonomy. Greenberg’s was an understandable (and arguably necessarily elitist) American reaction to the threat of fascism at the time; but earlier stages of the modernist enterprise (before Greenberg’s era) were not dominated entirely by this individualistic formulation of artistic autonomy. From Soviet Constructivism to the likes of Van Doesburg and Bauhaus, we can trace an alternative trajectory of modernism in which art is understood as always already instrumentalized in producing its contiguous reality as a mundane part of daily life. The legacy of this can be seen in the work of the Artists’ Placement Group (from the late 1960s through to the 70s and the early 80s) and more recently in the proposition made by David Robbins whilst teaching (at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) artists who were developing ideas about art post-internet. Robbins proposes reversing the logic of Duchamp’s readymades. Instead of taking non-art into the frame of art and making it art by calling it art, Robbins proposes taking artistic operations outside the context of art, doing art through non-art processes, where the category of ‘art’ might not even be relevant.9 The radical horizon of this proposition could be seen as counter to Contemporary Art’s Kantian architecture of spectatorship, taking up instead the hitherto minor legacy of the initial stages of the modernist project now resuscitated through Bernadette Corporation.

After the historical glitch of autonomy and beyond the fantasy of individual freedom, the likes of K-HOLE, Shanzhai Biennial, Kristin Luke’s The Air Inn Venice, Brace Brace, Andrew Norman Wilson‘s Sone agency, Special Service, New Ultra Group and DIS (most notably for Kenzo) are doing art through commercial processes, whilst Auto Italia, Calla Henkel & Max Pitegoff’s New Theatre, Arcadia Missa, Hotel Palenque, Misery Connoisseur, Peles Empire, Renzo Marten’s new Institute for Human Activity, Jonas Staal (including his collaboration with Metahaven) and are making institutions and building platforms. These practices require our spectatorship as part of their materials but not necessarily as their sole purpose.

From The Air Inn Venice, Kristin Luke

From The Air Inn Venice, Kristin Luke

Many of these tend to exist simultaneously or at different times as artists, as artworks and as curatorial platforms that, in turn, include other artists and their artworks as materials or content and where the viewer too becomes material/content, such that the category distinctions between artist, artwork, gallery, viewer become irrelevant or at least highly complicated and entangled. Reena Spaulings, for example, began her life in the New York art world as the fictional title character in Bernadette Corporation’s group-written book, before opening a commercial gallery and then becoming an artist herself who is represented in turn by other galleries. Reena Spaulings now operates as an artist, an ongoing artwork and as a functioning business that in turn represents other artists. The multiple roles occupied by Reena Spaulings could be understood as the appropriate solution to Conceptual Art’s mistargeting of the art object through its strategy of dematerialization from the late 1960s and 70s. Value never lay in the art object anyway; it was in the brand of the artist. So the dis-incarnation of the artist is perhaps more interesting, or at least with higher stakes, than the dematerialization of the art object. And it seams to me that the underlying category distinction that is being dissolved here is the phony binary between subject and object upon which the fantasy of autonomy is based. Beyond this humanist myth, the distributed ‘large-scale art objects’ or ‘hyper objects’ mentioned here can themselves be understood as sites of intersection between human and non-human materiality, too dispersed to be seen in their entirety and transcending localized interpretation.10 Art then becomes an issue not of either artistic or interpretational autonomy (in either Greenberg’s or Rancière’s11 formulations respectively) but rather of negotiating agency within its contiguous ecologies of interdependencies.

Renzo Marten’s new Institute for Human Activity is a somewhat provocative example of such an ecological approach to doing art, albeit polemically so. It is born from a frustration with the normalized hypocrisy of artists who make supposedly ‘edgy’, biennial-friendly work about remote, impoverished parts of the world, only for those artworks to be shown in metropolitan centers primarily for the benefit of museum audiences. In response, Martens prioritizes structural consequences where this work is made. Addressing the limitations of his own seminal film Episode 3: Enjoy Poverty, the artist is currently establishing an art space in a particularly remote part of the Congo for the purpose of exploiting the newly founded institution’s primary consequence – as a centre of gentrification. Within five years, Martens aims to have initiated sufficient economic growth in the area through art-led hipsterization that it will be possible to buy a cappuccino in that isolated part of the African jungle. Ironically basing his plans on Richard Florida’s dubious ideas about art’s uses in urban regeneration, Marten’s takes as his materials art’s actual local effects, rather than those interpretational consequences that are only for the work’s distant spectators. His appropriating of Florida’s ideas may be ironic but the explicitly infrastructural materiality of his work is deployed directly and not at all from any safe so-called ‘critical’ distance. This is not a conceptual proposition but an actual inflection in the landscape, taking as its materials the real social processes by which art’s institutions shape their environment.

In that sense it might be worth discussing Marten’s Institute for Human Activity in relation to the understanding of architecture that has come from that profession’s increased use of computational analytics. At its most superficial, this type of ‘parametric’ architecture is seen as a style that fetishes the biomorphic aesthetics made possible by the computerized mathematization of 3D design. But the most rigorous and profound iterations of computational design produce an approach to architecture that emerges from its situation, measuring pre-existing natural and social processes (even regardless of a binary distinction between the two) and then inflecting that environment with an architectural ‘program’ that is mathematically dependent on the measured parameters. Emerging from its landscape and algorithmically processed beyond human perception, such a program need not recognize a categorical distinction between figure and ground or subject and object, but rather produces an ontological entanglement between these categories. Exemplified by, for example, Patrik Schumacher’s Parametricism Manifesto for Zaha Hadid or by the work of Rem Koolhas’ OMA, computational architecture can make environmental interventions in the human and non-human processes that shape a landscape and thereby stands to concretize flows, undulations and movements of light, air, desire and capital. Whilst Matthew Poole’s research at CalArts addresses the political dangers of algorithmically designing social space in accordance with neoliberal capital, perhaps this approach to architecture is an appropriate way of understanding the Institute for Human Activity in that it allows an understanding of art-institutional consequences as emerging from and inflecting art’s environment.

Richard Florida addressing the audience at the Institute for Human Activity

Richard Florida addressing the audience at the Institute for Human Activity

This approach of accounting for the local structural effects of art might also be a useful way of evaluating, in an urban context, the often parallel effects of hipsters on a neighborhood. Whilst none of us actually admit to being one, the hipster embodies an anonymous and universally disavowed social movement of massive scale and global reach, remaking cities around the world so as to shape the urban environment with two-tier neighborhoods, eventually displacing often immigrant populations with the new migration of the cultural industries. The structural consequences of the hipster could be understood through the computational paradigm of architecture that emerges from and intervenes in its environment. And it is in this environment that both DIS and K-HOLE emerge and intervene, but rather than doing so in line with the hipster’s mainstreaming of connoisseurial counter-culture, both groups chart courses of connoisseurial resistance through the mainstream itself, reversing the trajectory of the hipster by fetishizing sameness rather than differentially elitist individualism. Whilst DIS does this by developing the distribution infrastructure for other artists to operate in the field of mass culture or through commercial processes, K-HOLE intervenes through writing. This work of lived appropriated literature is essentially a group writing project by which its authors negotiate their agency in relation to their day jobs, publishing their trend reports not as proprietary market research but as freely downloadable PDFs from And the power of expanding rather than restricting the proliferation of their information has been demonstrated over the last two weeks as the ideas behind their latest report on ‘Youth Mode’ strategies of ‘Mass Indie’ has flowed well beyond their immediate art readership and into mainstream circulation.

But this is not an authored idea so much as an analysis that emerges from (and through a sensitivity to) their environment. Informed perhaps by the group’s close connections to the Berlin art scene, where artists have tended to dress in a far more understated way than in other art capitals, K-HOLE’s latest report analyses this self-conscious non-fashion as approaching a mastery of sameness and labels it ‘Acting Basic’. However the media take-up of this idea following an article in the New York Magazine has confused it with another of K-HOLE’s catchier terms and the idea has proliferated as ‘Normcore’, the switching of terms in circulation itself demonstrating the de-prioritization of authorship when inflecting ecology. Rather than restricting their practice to Contemporary Art’s fantasy space of autonomy, K-HOLE’s activity could be understood as more akin to the approach to architecture just discussed that comes from an analysis of the landscape informing the concretizing of a strategic intervention (in this case the theory of Acting Basic behind the term Normcore) to inflect the environment. As Joselit might point out, the buzz of re-blogging has replaced the aura of the singular artwork. K-HOLE do intuitively through writing what computational approaches to architecture might one day be sufficiently sophisticated to do systematically with mathematics. It may be too early to foresee any consequences for our urban environment but the horizon of this type of ecological intervention lies in how cities are continually remade and in the potential of de-differentiating two-tier neighborhoods by prioritizing connoisseurship of the mainstream rather than the mainstreaming of elite stratifications.

From New World Summit, Jonas Staal

From New World Summit, Jonas Staal

The artistic strategies sited here seem to me to share more with the legacy of the early, pre-Greenbergian stages of the modernist project than with what Joselit sees as the historical glitch of artistic autonomy. And herein might lie a way past the dead end that many artists now seem to face in Contemporary Art’s logic of critique. Derived from Conceptual Art, which was after all almost instantly institutionalized and academicized, “criticality” is now taught, learned, rehearsed and played out to create value – crucial in fact at the top end of the art market. Institutions of course require critique to maintain their moral authority. And so Contemporary Art is required to play its pretend politics within its institutional pockets of mock opposition. But rather than playing up to the fantasy of critical distance, the artistic practices sited here work through networked contingencies to produce communities and consequences that institute reality. Spectatorship here becomes only part of the materials of (and not the purpose of) art’s ecology of effects beyond the viewer’s interpretation.

So where does political agency lie when it’s rooted not in a fantasy of critical distance but in the actuality of ecological entanglement? Well the catastrophic failure of the Occupy movement to institute any structural consequences clarifies an entrenched problem for the political Left. Of course there is some value in solidarity but perhaps only if it can mobilize transformation. It seems to me far more realistic for this to happen by inflecting infrastructure to repurpose neoliberalism’s existing technology rather than resisting the technology of capitalism as the Left has tried to do in the past. So could a now stunted political imaginary be reinvigorated through the directed redeployment of emergent technology? A modest example of this can be seen in how music sampling technology, initially developed to streamline the industrialized recording of music, has since been used harder than intended to make music in a way that has undercut the power of major record labels. And, by way of a more current example, the social media platform 0. (, a project by Jonas Staal and Metahaven, now sets out to exploit new freedom of information laws (in ways unforeseen by legislators) by deploying networked technology toward government accountability.

But can art, as the ultimate benchmark of connoisseurial consumerism, really be mobilized to redirect networked flows of power, capital and desire? Benjamin Noys’ test for accelerating existing platforms establishes useful criteria by asking whether infrastructure is inflected in such a way as to go beyond the ‘sheath’ (or preexisting parameters) of the platform that is being repurposed (as with the above example of sampling technology in music). With this criteria in mind, how now might neoliberal hegemony be confronted through repurposing the institutions of commerce? Well it seems to me that this is the crucial political challenge for today’s artists working through commercial processes, with the possible horizon of accelerating consumption beyond the internal contradictions of capitalism’s most exploitative formations.

1 Morton, Timothy – Ecology Without Nature (2007), Harvard University Press
2 Kant, Immanuel in P. Guyer and A. Wood (eds.), 1992, The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
3 Catren, Gabriel – Outland Empire, in L. Bryant, N. Srnicek and G. Harman (eds.), 2011, The Speculative Turn, Melbourne: Re.Press
4 Meillassoux, Quentin – Time Without Becoming lecture, Middlesex University, London, 8th May 2008
5 Duchamp, Marcel – The Creative Act (1957), in Robert Lebel (1959), Marcel Duchamp, New York: Grove Press
6 d’Harnoncourt, Anne and Hopps, Walter (1987), Etant Donnes: 1. La chute d’eau 2. Le gaz d’eclairage, Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art / Thames and Hudson
Tomkins, Calvin – Off The Wall (1981), NY: Picador
Dawn Ades, Neil Cox and David Hopkins – Marcel Duchamp (1999), Lon: Thames and Hudson
Cabanne, Pierre – Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp (1971), Lon: Thames and Hudson
7 Foucault, Michel – The Birth of Biopolitics, lectures at College de France 1978-79 (2008), NY: Palgrave Macmillan
8 Joselit, David – After Art (2012), Princeton University Press
9 Robbins, David – The Velvet Grind (2006), JRP Ringier
10 Morton, Timothy – Hyperobjects (2013), University of Minnesota Press
11 Rancière, Jacques – The Emancipated Spectator (2009), Lon: Verso

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