On Art and Disobedience; Or, What Is an Intervention?

“There is no outside anymore.”1 – Olafur Eliasson

On May 16 2007, the Guggenheim issued a press release stating that Felix Gonzalez-Torres would represent the United States at the Venice Biennale2. The Cuban-born artist, whose relationship to his adopted country was critical and complicated, had become a poster child for it. His body of work was edited to exclude explicit homosexual references: “gone are the doubled clocks and almost all the doubled circles, all the pieces with “Loverboy” in the title … and all specific references to Ross”3. The exception to this was a major new work, a doubled marble pool, which was presented not as a “figure of queer coupling”4, but rather described in vague, sublime terms: a “sign of infinity … a beacon of hope”5. This frictionless ideological integration of the artist into the State Department programme was a notable example of cultural co-option, a de-queered oeuvre appropriated for “conservative ends”6. But it also symbolized a sophisticated hegemony in that the artist’s work engendered an ‘interpassivity’, performing a counter or anti-stance for the public and thereby enabling a critical catharsis to unfold in a benign fashion7. While Gonzalez-Torres himself was acutely aware of the potential for his work to be caricatured or co-opted8, this posthumous assimilation is indicative of a cultural terrain which has become increasingly precarious, a kind of critical claustrophobia where free territory is quickly swallowed up and every potential step has already been predicted.

If this is the hazardous space of the outsider, then many contemporary artists can be characterized by their willingness to work from within: employing the logic, language and conventions of their chosen systems in preemptive co-option or collaboration.

Screenshot from the “HyperCurrentLiving” website displaying current stats
Screenshot from the “HyperCurrentLiving” website displaying current stats

In Ryder Ripps “HyperCurrentLiving”, the artist collaborates with Red Bull in a month long ‘performance’ where Ripps generates ideas and consumes the company’s energy drinks, updating these daily totals on a website. A live webcam allows the public to monitor his output: the artist sitting in front of a laptop in a self-designed karate suit emblazoned with both the Ripps and Red Bull graphic identities. The artist exemplifies the artist as cultural worker and in turn, the cultural worker as late capitalism agent par excellence.

A one-man advertising agency, Ripps engages in the type of ‘blue sky thinking’ prevalent across the communication sector, producing dematerialized commodities which are distributed virally via his Twitter feed. One concept (“a single serving site that tells you if you are being exploited at your internship”) cascades quickly after another (“an app that tells you if your gif is derivative or not”)9. Binge energy-drinking fuels this surge of productivity, shrugging off exhaustion and nutrition as inconvenient bodily constraints which drag down the bottom line.

On the face of it, this co-branding exercise between the artist and Red Bull, who spend 30-40% of their earnings on marketing10, seems like a productive synergy, a perfect collaboration. But Ryder is simply too much: by living out the brand (and wider contemporary) ideals to such an extent, an unspoken malaise is also laid bare. Aspirational traits lose their gleam: “connection” slides into technological incarceration, “busy” blurs into workaholic. While Ripps online persona remains vigilant through the night, his tweets static and steady, his disintegrating, hopped-up body quietly problematizes the ideal of the supercharged creative. By literally incarnating brand values, Ripps offers himself up as a sacrifice on the altar of hyper capitalism – a body incessantly creating and indefinitely deferring collapsing.

 Barack Obama's speech in Germany in front of Berlin's Siegessäule. July 24th 20
Barack Obama’s speech in Germany in front of Berlin’s Siegessäule. July 24th 2008

Julius von Bismarck operates within the logic of a different system: media and image production. People’s “great trust in their photographic reproductions of reality”11 motivated the development of the Image Fulgurator, an optically triggered projector which beams an image the instant it detects a camera flash. Essentially the device “lies in wait”12 for a member of the press to take a photo, infecting their snapshot with a text or image motif at the same moment it’s taken. If media is the “continuation of politics by other means”13, then the gun-like Fulgurator is part of the “new weaponry of information and communication technologies”14.

In one of von Bismarck’s best known works, he attended a speech by Barack Obama, projecting a white cross onto the podium and highlighting the “cult of personality” centred around the presidential candidate. Unlike post-editing techniques such as Photoshop, von Bismarck’s interventions insert themselves into the physical fabric of situations where power is performed and aura is staged: “NO” hovering above the Pope, an “O2” logo momentarily pinned on Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit or a Magritte dove overlaying Mao Zedong’s portrait in Tiananmen Square.

The artist follows PR logic to it’s inevitable conclusion, where the immediate public becomes merely a prop in a mediated reality staged primarily for the press: sight lines and backdrops defined for a camera’s CCD chip. By operating within this temporary media space where the eye is largely superfluous, von Bismarck’s sub-second intervention is able to avoid detection while simultaneously rupturing an otherwise contiguous reality.

In many respects the so-called democratisation of news media has served the established providers – citizen journalists supplementing bare-bones media units and eyewitness smartphone footage winning back viewers for clicks and advertising revenue. Von Bismarck’s media interventions, however, take this phenomenon at face value, his images asserting their equal rights with any others. Decoupled from the copyright assertions of major media networks and distributed via Google spiders or social interactions, this “errant idea”15 becomes itinerant, taking its place alongside other “legitimate” imagery in search results and image banks.

Screenshot from Ed Fornieles’ “Dorm Daze”

Screenshot from Ed Fornieles’ “Dorm Daze”

Ed Fornieles’ “Dorm Daze” project stages its intervention in the social media sphere. The London-based artist invited his friends to participate in a 3 month “semi-scripted”16 performance on a self-contained network on Facebook. The participants scalped profiles from real American college students and enacted a series of fictional narratives centred around this formative period: a girl cheating on her first crush, a fraternity hazing gone wrong, the suicide of a good friend. The increased sophistication of social networks coupled with fluency in internet tools and tropes allowed the participants to employ a range of methodologies to advance the narrative: maps to establish location, comments on an upcoming event, live chats for personal encounters, or friends tagged in photos.

Like von Bismarck, Fornieles harnesses the goal of a system, extrapolating it to an extreme.
Here the identity tweaking carried out by every Facebook member – snapshots retouched and likes carefully distributed – is transformed into wholesale identity construction, preening becoming performance.

Participation is the currency of social networks, modeled by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself, who had no qualms about setting most of his content to open and “didn’t see a need to limit visibility of pics with my friends, family”17. But while Fornieles downplays any subverting potential in the project, stating that it brought “committed users”18, these aren’t the users that the Facebook management, its new investors, or its advertisers are looking for. Fornieles has jettisoned the last shred of “authenticity” from the social media sphere, producing a group of profiles who can’t be monetized or monitored because of the simple fact that they don’t exist. Neither bots nor bodies, these ghost profiles LOLing their way through Facebook mock a billion dollar infrastructure, mining every connectivity tool in a purposeless play with a null result.

While this self contained durational performance was merely a speculative fiction, the feedback loop it initiates in the participant’s everyday existence is more persistent. Fornieles elaborates that the skills learnt “during this hypothetical three month exodus would be reapplied in conventional reality”19. For a generation brought up with avatars and profile pics, this practiced performativity sets the stage for a more permanent and personal “enhanced narrative”20, engendering an intervention IRL (in real life) which further blurs the “real/fictional binary”21.

On the face of it, Ripps, von Bismarck and Fornieles belong to an era of artists that may “no longer dream of an outside”22, their work utilizing the logic of branding and media to stage interventions that appear more collaborative than combative, preemptively disarming attempts at appropriation. But the lock-step engendered by this emulation inevitably fails. Accelerated by technology, betrayed by a body or liberated by the lack of one, this faltering may not disrupt the march of the inevitable so much as expose its inherent untenability.


[1] Salz, Jerry. “Restoration Drama”. http://www.artnet.com/Magazine/features/jsaltz/saltz5-26-05.asp
[2] Felix Gonzalez-Torres to Represent the US at the 52nd Venice Biennale. http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/press-room/releases/press-release-archive/2007/566-may-16-felix-gonzalez-torres-to-represent-the-united-states-at-the-52nd-international-art-exhibition-of-the-venice-biennale
[3] Rounthwaite, Adair. Split Witness: Metaphorical Extensions of Life in the Art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres” Representations, Vol. 109, No. 1 (Winter 2010), pp 35-56.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Felix Gonzalez-Torres to Represent the US at the 52nd Venice Biennale. http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/press-room/releases/press-release-archive/2007/566-may-16-felix-gonzalez-torres-to-represent-the-united-states-at-the-52nd-international-art-exhibition-of-the-venice-biennale
[6] Rounthwaite, Adair. Split Witness: Metaphorical Extensions of Life in the Art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres” Representations, Vol. 109, No. 1 (Winter 2010), pp 35-56.
[7] Fisher, Mark. “Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?”. Winchester, UK: Zero Books.
[8] “Felix Gonzalez-Torres warned us against the insidious encroachment of the right. He understood that their seductive strategies were an effective counterpoint to the easy-to-target, outdated signs of revolution.” Spector, Nancy. “Inside Outrage”. Frieze Magazine. http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/inside_outrage/
[9] Ryder Ripps Twitter Feed. https://twitter.com/ryder_ripps
[10] Red Bull’s $675 Million Formula 1 Spending Spree Helps Brand Top Ferrari. Bloomberg. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-11-03/red-bull-s-675-million-formula-1-spending-spree-helps-brand-top-ferrari.html
[11] Fulgurator-action webpage. http://www.juliusvonbismarck.com/bank/index.php?/projects/fulgurator-action/
[12] Sorrel, Charlie. “The Brains Behind the Image Fulgurator. http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2008/06/exclusive-inter/
[13] John Armitage. The Kosovo War Took Place In Orbital Space: Paul Virilio in Conversation. In: Ctheory. October 18, 2000. Accessed: May 5, 2010
[14] Ibid.
[15] Steyerl, Hito. “In Defense of the Poor Image”, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/
[16] Rhizome Artist Profile: Ed Fornieles. http://rhizome.org/editorial/2012/apr/2/artist-profile-ed-fornieles/
[17] Facebook’s Zuckerberg Becomes Poster Child for New Privacy Settings. http://www.wired.com/business/2009/12/zuckerberg-facebook-privacy/
[18] Rhizome Artist Profile: Ed Fornieles. http://rhizome.org/editorial/2012/apr/2/artist-profile-ed-fornieles/
[19] Ibid.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Holmes, Brian. “Extradisciplinary Investigations. Towards a New Critique of Institutions”. http://eipcp.net/transversal/0106/holmes/en