’удожественный журнал
digest 2005 Ц 2007

Topology of Contemporary Art

Boris Groys
Ilya & Emilia Kabakov. Incident at The Museum. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Courtesy of Stella Arts Gallery, Moscow. 1992
Today, the term "contemporary art" does not simply designate art that is produced in our time. Rather, today's contemporary art demonstrates the way in which the contemporary as such shows itself Ц the act of presenting the present. In this respect contemporary art is different from Modern art that was directed toward the future and it is different also from post-modern art that was a historical reflection on the Modern project. The contemporary "contemporary art" privileges the present in respect to the future and to the past. So to rightly characterize the nature of contemporary art it seems to be necessary to situate it in its relationship to the Modern project and to its post-modern reevaluation.

The central notion of Modern art was the notion of creativity. The genuinely creative artist was supposed to effectuate a radical break with the past, to erase, to destroy the past, to achieve a zero point of artistic tradition Ц and by doing so to give a new start to a new future. The traditional, mimetic artwork was subjected to the iconoclastic, destructive work of analysis and reduction. It is also no accident that the vocabulary constantly used by the historical avant-garde is the language of iconoclasm. Abolishing traditions, breaking with conventions, destroying old art and eradicating out-dated values were the slogans of the day. The practice of the historical avant-garde was based on the equation that was already formulated by Bakunin, Stirner and Nietzsche: Negation is creation. The iconoclastic images of destruction and reduction were destined to serve as the icons of the future. The artist was supposed to embody "active nihilism" Ц the nothingness that originates everything. But how can an individual artist prove that he or she is really, genuinely creative? Obviously, an artist can show it only by demonstrating how far he or she has gone along the way of reduction and destruction of the traditional image, how radical, how iconoclastic his or her work is. But to recognize a certain image as a truly iconoclastic one we have to be able to compare it with the traditional images, with the icons of the past. Otherwise the work of symbolic destruction would remain unaccounted for.

That means: The recognition of the iconoclastic, of the creative, of the new requires a permanent comparison with the traditional, with the old. The iconoclastic and the new can only be recognized by the art historically informed, museum-trained gaze. This is why, paradoxically, the more you want to free yourself from the art tradition, the more you become subjected to the logic of the art historical narrative and to museum collecting. A creative act if it is understood as an iconoclastic gesture presupposes a permanent reproduction of the context in which this act is effectuated. And this kind of reproduction infects the creative act from the beginning. We can even say that, under the condition of the modern museum, the newness of newly produced art is not established post factum-as a result of a comparison with old art. Rather, the comparison takes place before the emergence of a new, radical, iconoclastic artwork-and virtually produces this new artwork. The modern artwork is re-presented and re-cognized before it is produced. And that means further: The modernist production by negation is governed by reproduction of the means of comparison Ц of a certain historical narrative, of a certain artistic medium, of a certain visual language, of a certain fixed context of comparison. This paradoxical character of the Modern project was recognized and described by a number of the theoreticians and reflected on by many artists in the 60s and 70s. The recognition of this inner repetitiveness of the Modern project led to a redefinition of this project during the recent decades and to a post-modern thematization of the problematics of repetition, iteration, reproduction.

Not accidentally, the famous essay "The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction" by Walter Benjamin became so influential during these post-modern decades. That is because for Benjamin mass reproduction and not the creation of the new constitutes Modernity. As we all know, in his essay Benjamin introduces the concept of aura to describe the difference between original and copy under the conditions of perfect technical reproducibility. Since then, the concept of aura has made an astonishing philosophical carrier, yet largely as part of the famous formula of the "loss of the aura" characterizing the fate of the original in the modern age. The "loss of the aura" is described by Benjamin precisely as a loss of fixed, repetitive context of an artwork. According to Benjamin, in our age the artwork leaves its original context and begins to circulate anonymously in the networks of mass communication, reproduction and distribution. In other words, Benjamin describes the production of the mass culture as operating by a reversal of the "high" Modernist art strategy: "High" Modernist art negates the repetition of traditional images but it leaves the traditional art historical context intact, whereas low" art reproduces these images but negates, destroys their original context. In Modern age you negate either an artwork or its aura, its context Ц but not both of them simultaneously.

Ilya & Emilia Kabakov. Incident at The Museum. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Courtesy of Stella Arts Gallery, Moscow. 1992
The usual accent on the loss of the aura is, on one hand, totally legitimate, and certainly in tune with the overall intention of Benjamin's text. But maybe not the loss of the aura but, rather, its emergence gives us the opportunity to reach a better understanding of the processes taking place in the today's art, operating predominantly with the new media and techniques of reproduction; that is, to a better understanding, not only of the destiny of the original, but also of the destiny of the copy in our culture. In fact, the aura, as described by Benjamin, only comes into being thanks to the modern technique of reproduction. That is, it emerges precisely at the very moment it is getting lost. And it is born precisely for the same reason it is lost. Indeed, in his text Benjamin starts from the possibility of a perfect reproduction which would no longer allow any "material," visually recognizable difference between original and copy. The question formulated by Benjamin is namely: does the erasure of any visually recognizable difference between original and copy also mean the erasure of the difference between the two as such? Benjamin's answer to that question is, of course, no. The -at least potential- erasure of all visually recognizable differences between original and copy does not eliminate another difference existing between them which, albeit invisible, is none the less decisive: the original has an aura that the copy lacks. And the original has an aura because it has a fixed context, a well defined place in space, and through that particular place it is inscribed also in history as a singular, original object. The copy is, on the contrary, without a place and ahistorical -being right from the beginning a potential multiplicity. Reproduction means dislocation, deterritorialisation, it transports artworks to networks of topologically indeterminable circulation. Benjamin's corresponding formulations are very well known: "Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be", and he continues: "the here and now of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity ". But if the difference between original and copy is only a topological one Ц that means if it is only a difference between a closed, fixed, marked, auratic context and an open, unmarked, profane space of anonymous mass circulation Ц then not only the operation of dislocation and deterritorialisation of the original is possible, but also the operation of relocation and reterritorialisation of the copy. We are not only able to produce a copy out of an original by a technique of reproduction but we also are able to produce an original out of a copy by a technique of topological relocation of this copy Ц by a technique of installation.

The installation that nowadays became the leading art form in the framework of contemporary art operates as a reversal of reproduction. The installation takes a copy out of an allegedly unmarked, open space of anonymous circulation and puts it Ц even if only temporarily Ц in a fixed, stable, closed context of topologically well-defined "here and now". And that means that all the objects placed in an installation are originals, even when -or precisely when Ц they circulate outside of the installation as copies. Artworks in an installation are originals for one simple topological reason: it is necessary to go to the installation to see them. The installation is, above all, a socially codified variation of individual flaneurship as it was described by Benjamin, and therefore, a place for the aura, for "profane illumination." Our contemporary relationship with art cannot therefore be reduced to a "loss of the aura." Rather, the modern age organizes a complex interplay of dislocations and relocations, of deterritorialisations and reterritorialisations, of de-auratisations and re-auratisations. What differentiates contemporary art from previous times is only the fact that the originality of a work in our time is not established depending on its own form, but through its inclusion in a certain context, in a certain installation, through its topological inscription.

Benjamin overlooked the possibility Ц and even unavoidability Ц of reauratisations, relocations and new topological inscriptions of a copy because he shared with high modern art the belief in a unique, normative context of art. Under this presupposition, to lose its unique, original context means for an artwork to lose its aura forever Ц and to become a copy of itself. A reauratisation of an individual artwork would require a sacralisation of the whole profane space of topologically undetermined mass circulation of a copy Ц which would be a totalitarian, fascist project. And that is the main problem of Benjamin's thinking: he perceives the space of the mass circulation of a copy as a universal, neutral and homogeneous space. And he insists on the permanent visual recognizability, on the self-identity of a copy as it circulates in our contemporary culture. But both of these main presuppositions in Benjamin's text are questionable. In the framework of contemporary culture an image is permanently circulating from one medium to another medium, and from one closed context to another closed context. A certain film footage can be shown in a cinema theater, then converted to a digital form and appear on somebody's web site, or be shown during a conference as an illustration, or watched privately on a TV Ц screen in a person's living room, or put in a context of a museum installation. In this way through different contexts and media this film footage is transformed by different program languages, different softwares, different framings on the screen, different placement in an installation space, etc. Are we dealing all the time with the same film footage? Is it the same copy of the same copy of the same original? The topology of today's networks of communication, of generation, translation and distribution of images is extremely heterogeneous. The images are all the time transformed, rewritten, reedited, reprogrammed on their way through these networks Ц and become also to be visually different by every such a step. Their status as copies becomes therefore to be just a cultural convention Ц as it was earlier the status of the original. Benjamin suggested that the new technology is able to make a copy more and more identical to the original. The contrary is the case. The contemporary technology thinks in generations. And to transmit an information from one generation of hardware and software to a next generation means to transform it in a significant way. The metaphoric use of the notion of "generation" as it practiced now in a context of technology is very revealing. All of us know what does it mean to transmit a certain cultural heritage form one generation of the students to another generation. The situation of the "mechanical reproduction" in the context of, let us say, contemporary Internet looks no less difficult Ц maybe even more difficult.

We are as unable to stabilize a copy as a copy Ц as we are unable to stabilize an original as an original. There are no eternal copies as there are no eternal originals. Reproduction is as much infected by originality as originality is infected by reproduction. By circulating through the different contexts a copy becomes a series of different originals. Every change of context, every change of medium can be interpreted as a negation of a status of a copy as a copy Ц as an essential rupture, as a new start that open a new future. In this sense, a copy is never really a copy Ц but rather always a new original in a new context. Every copy is by itself a flaneur Ц and experiences time and again its own "profane illuminations" turning it into an original. It loses old auras Ц and gets new auras. It remains maybe the same copy Ц but it becomes different originals. That shows that a post-modern project to reflect on the repetitive, iterative, reproductive character of an image is as paradoxical as the modern project of recognizing the original and the new. That is also why post-modern art is able to look very new even if Ц or actually because Ц it is directed against the notion of the new. Our decision to recognize a certain image as an original or as a copy is dependent on the context Ц on the scene where this decision is taken. And this decision is always a contemporary decision Ц a decision that belongs not to the past and not to the future but to the present.

Ilya & Emilia Kabakov. Incident at The Museum. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Courtesy of Stella Arts Gallery, Moscow. 1992
That is why I would argue that the installation is the leading art form of contemporary art. The installation demonstrates a certain selection, a certain chain of choices, a certain logic of inclusions and exclusions. An by doing so an installation manifests here and now certain decisions about what is old and what is new, what is an original and what is a copy. Every large exhibition or installation is made with the intention of designing a new order of memories, of proposing the new criteria for telling a story, for differentiating between past and future. Modern art was working on the level of an individual form. Contemporary art is working on the level of context, framework, background, or of a new theoretical interpretation. That is why contemporary art is less production of individual artworks than it is manifestation of an individual decision to include or to exclude things and images that circulate anonymously in our world- to give them a new context or to deny it to them: a private selection that is at the same time publicly accessible and thereby made manifest, present, explicit. Even if an installation consists of one individual painting, it is still an installation, since the crucial aspect of the painting as an artwork is not the fact that it was produced by an artist but that it was selected by an artist and presented as something selected.

The installation space can, of course, incorporate all kinds of things and images that circulate in our civilization: paintings, drawings, photographs, texts, videos, films, recordings, and so on. That is why the installation is frequently denied the status of a specific art form, because the question arises what the medium of an installation is. The traditional art media are all defined by a specific material support for the medium: canvas, stone, or film. The material support of the medium in an installation, however, is the space itself. This artistic space of the installation may be a museum or art gallery, but also a private studio, or a home, or a building site. All of them may be turned into a site of installation by documenting the selection process, whether private or institutional. That does not mean, however, that the installation is somehow "immaterial." On the contrary, the installation is material par excellence, since it is spatial Ц and being in the space is the most general definition of being material. The installation reveals precisely the materiality of the civilization in which we live, because it installs everything that our civilization simply circulates. The installation thus demonstrates the material hardware of civilization that would otherwise go unnoticed behind the surface of image circulation in the mass media. At the same time an installation is not a manifestation of already existing relationships among things but, precisely, on the contrary, an installation offers an opportunity to use the things and images of our civilization in a very subjective, individual way. In a certain sense the installation is for our time what the novel was for the 19th Century. The novel was a literary form that included all other literary forms of that time Ц and the installation is an art form that includes all other contemporary art forms.

The inclusion of the film footage into an artistic installation shows its transformative power in an especially obvious way. A video or film installation secularizes the conditions of film presentation. The film spectator is not anymore immobilised, bound to a seat and left in the darkness Ц being supposed to watch a movie from its beginning to its end. In the video installation where a video is moving in a loop the spectator may move about freely in the room and leave or return at any time. This movement of the spectator in the exhibition space cannot be arbitrarily stopped because it has an essential function in the perception of the installation. Clearly a situation arises here in which the contradictory expectations of a visit to a movie theatre and a visit to an exhibition space create a conflict for the visitor: Should he or she stand still and allow the pictures to play before him as in a movie theatre, or move further? The feeling of insecurity resulting from this conflict puts a spectator in a situation of choice. The spectator is confronted by the necessity to develop an individual strategy of looking at the film, at the individual film narrative. The time of contemplation must be continually renegotiated between artist and spectator. That shows very clearly that a film is radically, essentially changed by being put under the conditions of an installation visit Ц being a same copy the film becomes a different original.

Ilya & Emilia Kabakov. Incident at The Museum. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Courtesy of Stella Arts Gallery, Moscow. 1992
But if an installation is a space where the differentiation between original and copy, innovation and repetition, past and future takes place, could we speak of an individual installation itself as being original or new? Now an installation cannot be a copy of another installation because an installation is by definition present, contemporary. An installation is a presentation of the present Ц of a decision that takes place here and now. But at the same time an installation can not be truly new Ц simply because it can not be immediately compared to other, earlier, older installations. To compare one installation to another installation we have to create a new installation that would be a place of such a comparison. And that means that we have no outside position in relationship to the installation practice. That is why the installation is so pervasive and unavoidable art form.

And that is why it is also truly political. The growing importance of the installation as an art form is in a very obvious way connected to the re-politisation of art that we could experience in the recent years. The installation is not only political because it gives a possibility to document political positions, projects, actions and events Ц even if such a documentation meanwhile also became a wider-spread artistic practice. More important the installation is in itself, as it was already said, a space of decision making Ц and first of all of decisions concerning the differentiation between old and new, traditional and innovative. In the 19th Century Soeren Kierkegaard discussed the difference of old and new using as an example the figure of Jesus Christ. Indeed, Kierkegaard states that for a spectator who would be contemporary of Jesus Christ it was impossible to recognize in Christ a new God precisely because he didn't look new Ц the figure of Christ initially looked like that of every other ordinary human being at that historical time. In other words, an objective spectator at that time, confronted with the figure of Christ, could not find any visible, concrete difference between Christ and an ordinary human being Ц a visible difference that could suggest that Christ is not simply a man, but also a God. So for Kierkegaard, Christianity is based on the impossibility of recognizing Christ as God-the impossibility of recognizing Christ as visually different: by merely looking on Christ we cannot decide, is he a copy or an original, ordinary human being or God. Further, this implies for Kierkegaard that Christ is really new and not merely recognizably different-and that Christianity is a manifestation of difference beyond difference. We can say that Christ according to Kierkegaard is a readymade among Gods Ц like Duchamp's urinoire was a readymade among artworks. In both cases the context decides about the newness Ц and in both cases we cannot rely on an established, institutional context but have to create something like a theological or artistic installation that would allow us to take a decision and to articulate it.

Thus, the differentiation between old and new, repetitive and original, conservative and progressive, traditional and liberal is not just a differentiation among many others. Rather, it is a central differentiation that informs any other religious and political options in modernity Ц the vocabulary of the modern politics shows that very clearly. The contemporary artistic installation has a goal to present the scene, the context, the strategy of this differentiation as it takes place here and now Ц that is why it can be called genuinely contemporary, indeed. But how does the contemporary installation relate to the recent controversy between Modern and Post-Modern art practices?

Ilya & Emilia Kabakov. Incident at The Museum. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Courtesy of Stella Arts Gallery, Moscow. 1992
The iconoclastic gesture that produces the modernist artwork functions of course not simply as a manifestation of an artistic subjectivity understood as pure negativity. This gesture has a positive goal to reveal the materiality of the artwork, its pure presence Ц to establish, as Malevich stated it, the "supremacy of art" by liberating art from its submission under the mimetic illusion, communicative intention or the traditional requirements of instantaneous recognizability. Being often enough characterized as "formalistic" Modernist art can hardly be defined in formal terms: the modernist artworks are too heterogeneous on a formal level to be subsumed under any purely formalistic criteria. Rather, modernist art can be characterized by its specific claim to be true Ц in a sense to be present, thoroughly visible, immediately revealed, or to use a Heideggerian term "unconcealed". Beyond this specific claim to truth the modernist artwork looses its edge and becomes merely decorative whatever its form can be. And precisely this claim to truth was put in question by post-modernist criticism: the immediate presence of a modernist artwork was accused to conceal its repetitive, reproductive character. The mere fact that a modernist artwork is still recognizable as an artwork means namely that this artwork reproduces the general conditions of recognizability of an artwork as artwork Ц even if a form of this artwork seems to be quite original. And more than that: the iconoclastic gesture itself that produces the modernist artwork can be described as functioning in a repetitive, reproductive manner. That means: the truth of the modernist artwork understood as its immediate material presence can easily be described as a lie Ц as concealment of the potentially infinite number of reproductions, copies that make this "original" artwork identifiable, recognizable in the first place. Postmodernist art gives up the claim to truth that Modernism has raised. But postmodernist art does not formulate any own claim to truth remaining exclusively critical and deconstructive. Under the conditions of Post -Modernity art becomes a lie that manifests itself as a lie Ц finding its truth in a classical paradox of a liar confessing to be a liar. This paradox arises because a postmodern artwork presents itself as merely an example of an infinite sequence of reproductions and repetitions. That means: the postmodern artwork is present and absent, true and false, real and simulated on the same time.

Ilya & Emilia Kabakov. Incident at The Museum. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Courtesy of Stella Arts Gallery, Moscow. 1992
Now it becomes relatively easy to characterize the place that the contemporary installation occupies in relationship to the modernist claim to truth and to its postmodern deconstruction. The installation is, as it was already said, a finite space of presence where different images and objects are arranged and exhibited. These images and objects present themselves in a very immediate way. They are here and now Ц and they are thoroughly visible, given, unconcealed. But they are unconcealed only as long as they are parts of this individual installation. Taken separately these images and objects do not raise the claim to be unconcealed and true. Quite on the contrary, these images and objects manifest Ц mostly in a very obvious way Ц their status as copies, as reproductions, as repetitions. We can say: the installation formulates and makes explicit the conditions of truth for the images and objects which this installation contains. Every image and object in the installation can be seen as being true, unconcealed, present Ц but only inside the installation space. In their relationship to the outside space the same images and objects can be seen as revealing and at the same time concealing their status of being merely the items of the potentially infinite sequences of repetition and reproduction. The modern artwork raised the claim to be unconditionally true, to be unconcealed. The post-modern criticism put this unconditional claim into question Ц but without asking about the conditions of truth understood as presence, as unconcealment. The installation formulate these conditions by creating a finite, closed space which becomes the space of open conflict and unavoidable decision between original and reproduction, between presence and representation, between unconcealed and concealed. And that means: the closure that is effectuated by an installation should not be interpreted as an opposition to the "openness". By closure the installation creates its outside and opens itself to this outside. The closure is here not an opposition to the openness but its precondition. The infinite is, on the contrary, not open because it has no outside. Being open is not the same thing as being all-inclusive. The artwork that is conceived as a machine of infinite expansion and inclusion is not an open artwork but an artistic counterpart of an imperial hybris. The installation is a place of openness, of disclosure, of unconcealment precisely because it situates inside its finite space images and objects that also circulate in the outside space Ц and in this way it opens itself to its outside. That is why the installation is able to openly manifest the conflict between the presence of the images and objects inside a finite horizon of our immediate experience and their invisible, virtual, "absent" circulation in the space outside of this horizon Ц a conflict that defines the contemporary cultural practice.

Boris Groys
Born in 1947 in Petersburg.
Philosopher, art theorist.
Lives in Koeln, Germany.
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