Carlos Motta, "The Good Life," 2005–2008. Thirteen-channel video installation. Courtesy of the artist.

Carlos Motta, The Good Life, 2005–2008. Thirteen-channel video installation. Courtesy of the artist.

Ironically enough, given these intentions, one place The Good Life fell short was in more fully surveying this field. One wishes that Motta had travelled from capital cities into the periphery, or had extensively interviewed indigenous populations, as this might have contributed greater diversity of opinion to a work that openly pursued this objective. Similarly, while the installation wisely abstained from simply equating the interview form with democracy, it failed to more rigorously examine the relation between political and aesthetic modes of organization. By making his interviews readily available through an online archive, Motta seemed to be promoting progressive reform through making information accessible to all.14However faultless such intentions may be, they nonetheless appear to conflict with the aesthetic economy that one usually expects from critical art.

Such a surplus of legible material posed a different sort of problem in the two works presented by Claire Fontaine, the moniker of a Parisian collective who promotes its namesake as, variously, a “readymade artist,” a “nonspecific singularity,” and an “existential terrorist.” As this proliferation of alternate identities suggests, Fontaine knowingly cycles through inherited avant-gardist anti-aestheticisms, with her name ultimately starting to seem like an alias in search of a criminal. Besides generating notoriety, the ostensible point is to locate a viable subject position for resistant action by eliminating spent alternatives. Whereas Fontaine’s polemical writings, available online but not included in the exhibition, suggest numerous ways that her project might work in conjunction with critical geographies, her work at SFAI felt awkwardly inert. Visions of the World (Some Flags) (2010) consisted of a stack of posters depicting a wide array of national flags with country names given in Arabic. Like a clever bumper sticker, you pretty much got it and then forgot it; it lacked any of the pathos or subtlety of the Felix Gonzalez-Torres takeaway pieces it cited. As elsewhere in Fontaine’s work, foreignness was casually equated with an intrinsically resistant alterity without noting the obvious problem of misidentification.15 Circus (2008) was a ceiling drawing of the EU logo rendered from the ash of burnt matches. Absent any larger context of activism, the piece felt like a merely aestheticized gesture of protest, or a refusal of meaning that lacked any meaningful commitment to negative dialectics.

Claire Fontaine, "Visions of the World (Some Flags)," 2010. Stack of 5,000 offset posters; 36 x 24 in. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York. Installation view from "Geography of Transterritories," February 25–May 22, 2010, Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco Art Institute. Courtesy of the artist.

Claire Fontaine, Visions of the World (Some Flags), 2010. Stack of 5,000 offset posters; 36 x 24 in. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York. Installation view from Geography of Transterritories, February 25–May 22, 2010, Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco Art Institute. Courtesy of the artist.

Fontaine has argued that the art world functions as a sort of transterritory outside other professional realms, harboring those who choose to become “more or less political refugees.”16 Despite the blatant myopia of such claims, Fontaine raises worthwhile questions by skeptically examining the potential of artistic production to challenge hegemonic divisions between intellectual and material labor. Tracing links between the art industry and the libidinal economy of consumption, she ultimately maintains that the colonization of the aesthetic can only be contested through a tactic she has theorized as the “human strike,” a practice modeled on the public silences of certain Italian feminists in the 1970s.17 However, given that Fontaine has also advocated “political impotence” as both a means and a subject, it was tempting to write off the works she exhibited at SFAI as a cleverly updated version of an old Left melancholy.18

Such cagey equivocations were emblematic of the remaining works in Geography of Transterritories, which indicated important conflicts for critical art production, but only obliquely or inadvertently. Michael Arcega’s Concealarium, consisting of two stacks of unmodified two-by-fours on mobile pallets, presented itself as a return to Minimalism’s encounter with the readymade. Upon closer inspection, viewers found that each structure had a camouflaged door. The hidden compartment within was large enough to hold an adult and thus enable human trafficking, or function as a “panic room.” In rediverting late Modernist art towards more explicitly topical ends, the sculpture resembled Edgar Arcenaux’s appropriations of Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings, or Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s remake of a Dan Flavin neon work.19 However, Arcega’s piece failed to persuasively register the complexities of immigration politics, and instead seemed to merely cite criticality as an existing style. If anything, Concealarium said more about the fact that artists still often feel as if they have to smuggle critical content into the gallery, or even that they feel compelled to do so.

An analogous dilemma arose in the poster series contributed by the French cooperative Societe Realiste. Titled Ministere de l’Architecture: Culture States (2008-09), the work ironically proposed to recreate the famous Paris Exposition of 1937. Societe Realiste subverted the unchecked nationalism of its precedent by including states that no longer exist and mapping minority languages. But despite its intentions to satirize the rhetoric of official culture, the piece often seemed itself an example of precisely this sort of jargon, given its stated objective as a “research and production study in the field of territorial ergonomy.”20 Seeing as the Paris Expo now stands as an example of Modernism’s crisis, one has to wonder how the loss of a shared progressive horizon continues to affect design-based practices, and even whether the overproduction of discourse somehow means to compensate for this lost object.

Footnotes

  1. Motta’s archive is located at http://www.la-buenavida. info/web/video.
  2. I refer here to such works as Foreigners Everywhere (2005) as well as to Fontaine’s professed interest in the slogan, “We are all German Jews,” popularized during the French student uprisings of May 1968.
  3. These citations are drawn from an interview between Claire Fontaine and John Kelsey in 2005, available online at http://www. clairefontaine.ws/interviews. html (accessed July 23, 2010).
  4. See Fontaine, “Ready-Made Artist and Human Strike: A Few Clarifications,” archived online at http://www.clairefontaine. ws/pdf/readymade_eng. pdf (accessed July 23, 2010).
  5. See Fontaine, “Untitled Text,” available at http:// www.clairefontaine.ws/ pdf/untitled_text.pdf.
  6. I refer here to Allora and Calzadilla’s Puerto Rican Light (to Dan Flavin) (2003).
  7. In Hou, Geography of Transterritories.
Further Reading