QOQQOON (cocoon) is a research project concerning visual art and materialist philosophy. Currently we are exploring “conceptual materialism.” Submissions are welcome. Edited by Leigh Tennant and Steven Cottingham. Published on unceded territories (Vancouver, Canada) since 2018.

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QOQQOON//4 forms of political art

4 forms of political art

How does political art achieve political effect? In a moment where artistic activity is overwhelmingly dependent upon financial speculation and algorithmic optimization, the art world remains basically indistinct from any target of political critique. And yet it is a consistent feature of apolitical forums like art fairs and public installations to express some kind of political charge. In fact, we might even posit that the capacity to reference politics has become a way of measuring a work’s relevance and justifying its market value. Given these conditions, is it possible to distinguish political art from art about politics? In other words, is there a difference between art that namechecks news headlines for cultural cache and art that interrupts normative discourse with new axiological propositions? The following writing explores a variety of representational strategies linking art to politics, as well as modes by which these politics are actualized within an artwork. This will necessitate reference to trends in contemporary artistic practice, and so I will be using the “legible politics” of artists like Claire Fontaine and Cameron Rowland and the “political formalism” of artists like Lee Lozano and Tehching Hsieh to attend to at least four of the ways in which art aspires to political effect: art as journalism, art as activism, art as criticism, and art as philosophy.

To do so, we must distinguish politics from the political. At the level of content, we experience politics as the ongoing conflict of disparate socio-economic interests, and the crystallization of these interests as policy and policing. That is, it is the process by which value becomes law: politics is the determination of the possible. So, if politics concerns the possible, and if art is an aspiration for a state of uncoerced creativity, then both discourses overlap in terms of their regard for the virtual. By this I mean that both art and politics participate in the contestation of reality. Politics may occur at a level approaching the universal, and art may be more or less confined to the subjective, but these are not mutually exclusive positions—in fact they are contiguous. That “the personal is political” is especially evident for those who are unvalued by and marginalized within the dominant political discourse. With respect to art and politics, the most pressing form of marginality may be that of agency: the capacity to be creative; the reduction of coercion. All forms of oppression and exploitation negatively affect this capacity, however differently. Therefore, we can say that politics is the field in which these capacities are assigned according to a given value system, whereas the political is any act that changes the assignation of value, and therefore the distribution of agency. In other words, the political is a shift in the possible. We are aware that art can be about politics. But can art be political?

Although it may seem like an admission of defeat to take on the question of politics solely in relation to aesthetics, we must recognize that aesthetics is not simply a matter of what a thing looks like—what sensual properties it bears—but also how a thing is perceived or made legible. That is, aesthetics encompasses the process of projection just as much as reception. Internal processes are recursively determined by external relations, and vice versa. It describes an active system wherein representations are given significance by the capacity to find them significant. An aesthetic attribute must not only be sensual in order to be apprehended, it must also be marked as worth apprehending. This worth is produced by value systems: discourses that allow different aspects to be legible. Is this not also the operation of politics? In both aesthetics and politics we find that no representation is self-evident. The relationship between sign and signifier is always guaranteed by context rather than anything immanent to the sign itself. In the same way that a word (“book”) may be defined differently depending on its context (“a book” or “to book”), so too are images, signs, and representations interpreted and valued according to the discourses in which they appear. A consumer encounters a commodity and sees a usefulness they would like to possess, an artisan sees an arrangement of fabrication techniques, and an artist might envision raw material for an artwork. All of these things can be individually perceived without the commodity itself changing appearance, even if it does change function and value in relation to these different discourses. Therefore aesthetics encompasses the cultural or contextual dynamics that determine legibility. Consider the role that mechanisms such as targeted ads and bureaucratic processes play in shaping perception. In these instances we can grasp how media forms are an active part of determining what is valuable, both through emphasis (targeting, repetition) and through exclusion (censorship, misdirection). These forms determine not what is said but rather what is sayable. Ultimately, aesthetics are comprised by both content and form, communication and channel. Given these definitions, it is not so difficult to see how the reigning political paradigm plays a significant role in determining both the form and content of these communicative relations because all social representations are understood with respect to their context, that is, to a set of values that determine legibility. 

It is the act of representation itself that unites art and politics. As in art, representation is a core mechanic in politics: elections metaphorically represent the will of the people, and the representation of value is expressed through policy. But more specifically politics represents value by forcing adherence to policy, and likewise the triangulation of representation, value, and force manifests in art on the aesthetic level. I use force here to refer to a process of actualization, making discursive prescriptions into material realities. Whereas text forces the eye from line to line and word to word, establishing a temporal hierarchy in an otherwise multivalent object (e.g., a book’s pages can be turned in any order but read in only one), art uses strategies of composition, material, and form to achieve similar effect. A signifier can force a signified. This force is asserted at the level of form, as a syntax that enables the legibility of its content. What results is not only a commandeering of modes of perception, but because perception comprises both reception and projection, it elicits a directive at the conceptual level as well as the sensual. Simply put, an artwork can act on us without our conscious assent because it operates in both the unconscious (the social totality of language, technology, and possibility) and the subconscious (the bodily faculties that enable apprehension).

Finally, we should clarify that these representations are not limited to mimesis in the sense of appearances; representations can be made in the likeness of forms, capacities, and behaviours. We can distinguish these categories of representation as metaphor and metonymy. Metaphor operates at the level of content while metonymy is a formal relation. In metaphor, signs are exchanged for one another on the basis of content. A noun can be exchanged for a noun, a cop is a pig, the splattery brushwork signifies emotional turmoil. But metonymy results from altering not just what signs are related but how signs relate. The pen is mightier than the sword. Teresa Margolles uses bathwater from autopsies to index cartel violence in Mexico. Metonymy is established through argumentation precisely because the contiguity of one sign to another is not self-evident and can only be apprehended through context. This is a crucial distinction. It is obvious that art can represent politics in a metaphorical sense as metaphoric representation is unidirectional and even arbitrary: one sign dons the appearance of a second sign, the first sign is altered while the second remains. The cop is a pig, but a pig is not the cop. Contrarily, metonymic representation requires both signs to relate to one another, each affirming the representational quality between them. In this way there is a mutual recognition between the representation and the represented. Contiguity is established between them as if it was always there. Regardless of appearances, a commodity is contiguous with its mode of production: a place stands for an event because the event can be demonstrated to have happened there. Coltan mines can be used to refer to cellphones and vice versa given enough argumentation. This material commonality can be established through discourse even if it is not self-evident, and the contiguity remains even if additional arguments change the way in which we understand the interrelationship. So, while metaphor can in one sense be understood as constitutive of all language—meaning that metonymy is a subset of metaphor in the linguistic field (signs only relate to each other through discourse; there is nothing symbolic that is innate to matter)—we can conceptually distinguish metonymy from metaphor and even posit that interpretation is itself a metonymic action within the aesthetic field. From here it is not much of a stretch to say that an artwork establishes contiguity between artist and audience and, likewise, art and politics are contiguous through aesthetics. Ultimately contiguity means that affecting a representation will affect what it represents, and therefore offers a way of thinking art’s relationship to politics without deferring to populist legibilities.

The matrix of political art

I would like to propose an interpretive matrix that can be used in order to approach this question—what is political about political art?—with the understanding that the question is a theoretical one that cannot be resolved, only tested. Still, I believe that this emphasis on aesthetics can provide clarity in our thinking and mark a way through some of the anxieties that represent the current discourse around political art. This matrix comprises two binaries: the first is form and content in the sense of a communication and the channel that enables the communication. Distinguishing these two orders allows us to apprehend an artwork without immediately conflating it with art world infrastructures, and vice versa. The second binary is metaphor and metonymy, or unidirectional and symmetrical representation. I will develop each of the four resulting matrices with reference to tendencies in contemporary artistic practice. The goal of this writing is to find a capacity to think beyond the first order experience that is so often produced and constrained by capitalist media, and to open up an affirmative realm of contemplation that is exceptional to reigning iconographies.

1. Metaphoric content: Art as journalism

Artwork that falls under the rubric of metaphoric content can be said to adhere to normative modes of perception. By this I refer to the dominant aesthetic paradigms expressed by corporate news organizations, clickbait journalism, and viral cliches. This is work that presents itself as a reflection of “the times we live in.” In order to achieve maximal legibility as political, the work defers to journalist and activist conceptions of appropriate political activity. That is, the work’s primary affect is “increasing awareness,” disregarding art’s relative inability to a) reach mass audiences, b) overcome the contradiction of its unaffordable prices and aspirationally relatable politics, and c) engage with awareness outside of the journalist/activist paradigm wherein awareness is primarily a means to elicit ad-revenue and charitable donations.

Metaphorical content is produced in two ways: the first is as signifier (what is representing), and the second is as signified (what is being represented). As signifier, the artwork makes reference to ongoing events as portrayed by the media. Here, the work tends to take the form of slogans and images—signalling quickly and efficiently without upsetting the conventions of politically-oriented aesthetics. Because symbolic elements within the work are metaphorically related to broader concerns, the metaphoric mode of art-making does not require argumentation to establish symmetry between referents. It’s art because it’s in art galleries, it’s political because it’s about politics. Citations and evidence only slow down the transmission of meaning. As signified, the work is concerned with news. In pursuit of mass awareness, the signified is already established, the audience already knows what is being represented, the representation need only be reaffirmed in order to compete with all else that demands attention. This itself is metaphorical. Even prior to algorithmic catering and centralized echo chambers, the aesthetic of news has always been dependent on market relations. This means that newness in the sense of radicality is inevitably circumvented in favour of news in the sense of entertainment—the two are conflated through metaphor. Driven by subscriptions, ads, and forms of payment dependent on the ongoing fulfilment of expectations, news remains consistent and reinforces prevailing worldviews.

There are many practices that can be considered to operate within these terms. I will here emphasize the work of Claire Fontaine and Andrea Bowers, as both are highly visible, each represented by multiple galleries, and both derive at least some of their credibility through their links to extra-artistic political activity. In their work, headlines and slogans are appropriated and made manifest through conventional modes of display—neon signage being a favourite. The shift in context entailed by this appropriation is not necessarily one that necessitates a re-evaluation of its content: whether appearing in a public square or an art fair booth, the politics remain unaffected as the work seeks to raise consciousness within any mass audience.

By calling themselves a “readymade artist,” the collective Claire Fontaine uses a pseudonym to refer to their own mass subjectivity. An article in Frieze notes that “Claire Fontaine adopts positions pseudonymity enables: the denial of individual skill, authority and originality through the collective détournement of signs, symbols, images and objects available in contemporary visual culture.”1 The artists instantiate metaphor in two ways: by denying or refusing contiguity between their practice and any specific site, and by doubling-down on the forms of subjecthood assigned by capital to its workers. The “détournement of signs” affects a semiotic playfulness that results in a reconsideration of the signifier but not necessarily of the signified. Consider the work Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité (2018): the title is a slogan of the French Revolution, hi-viz jackets are a contemporary symbol of open unrest, and flags signify politics. Therefore the work can be legibly classified as political art. Elsewhere, maps of various countries are constructed in matchsticks and set alight on the gallery wall—the metaphorical destruction of a symbol that is itself only symbolic. More politics. Another work, Earthman (2016), depicts a smiling snowman made of mud. Possibly a metaphor for the kinds of leisure activities available post-global warming, the sculpture itself is largely polystyrene. The work marks itself as political, uniting references in order to refer the viewer to any number of more pressing issues. At the aesthetic level, the work demonstrates the symbolic nature of all that constitutes society. That is, it argues that politics are a matter of aesthetics, without making any particular prescriptions that would upset the playfulness of the work. In this way, Fontaine’s work insists on the capacity to produce aesthetic ruptures in a symbolic society without actualizing it: a screenprint that proclaims “capitalism is not working” might elicit a degree of shock if it appeared somewhere other than a commercial art gallery. Complicity is ubiquitous, individuals have no agency, and so on… These are exactly the same epistemological presuppositions that incited this writing.

If the traditional political dialectic comprises theory and praxis, Claire Fontaine can be said to dwell in the former whereas Andrea Bowers takes up the latter. For the Global Climate Action Summit at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, Bowers produced a monumental neon sign proclaiming “Climate change is Real.” The sentiment achieves prominence on the metaphorical level while being somewhat undermined by the spectacle of its production and ensuing power consumption. Throughout her practice, she has made several large-scale lists: No Olvidado – Not Forgotten (2010), rendered in graphite against a depiction of a barbed wire fence, lists the names of individuals who died crossing the US–Mexico border. The work can only be read as a metaphor of mourning, names are merely names, and the iconic border wall is eschewed for a generic chainlink fence. Another list (Open Secret, 2018–2019) comprises the names of sexually abusive men who have been outed as part of the #MeToo movement (the same work was protested for nonconsensually including an image of a battered survivor).2 Nearby a neon sign proclaims “Trust Women.” That which emerges through viral, populist, or democratic means is repurposed for artistic ends. But where the artist is named alongside the artwork, mass movements and memes eschew individual accreditation in order to assert systemic presence.

In both Fontaine’s and Bowers’ work—and characteristic of metaphoric content as a whole—the position of artist is deferred for a voice akin to that of the journalist: one tasked with reportage and not with interpretation; delivering facts, not arguments. The presence of a byline or masthead is not seen as an interference to the objectivity to which these mediums aspire. Even if the content is not explicitly sanctioned by the systems under critique, there is at least the attempt to remain legible according to the aesthetic paradigms established by these systems.

2. Metonymic content: Art as activism

Whereas art as journalism requirs one to dismiss the wall placard and list of materials in favour of the representation’s self-evidency, art as activism tends to necessitate the inverse. That is, metonymic content comprises a mode of representation that stakes some kind of claim for its signification. It establishes contiguity (beyond mere likeness) to the terrain of the political. But what is common to both metaphoric and metonymic content is the maintenance of politics as extrinsic to art, as something to be referred to instead of actualized as such.

One way in which this tends to be accomplished is through the use of charged materials. In some instances, the arrangement of material can be reduced to readymade sculpture—the metonymic artwork presents itself as an isolated but nonetheless connected node in a web of political circumstances. This can be called an instance of material contiguity. In other instances the work recontextualizes banal content so that its political resonance is thrown into relief, establishing a discursive contiguity between the work and its originating circumstances or provenance.

Cameron Rowland’s use of charged materials may most clearly illustrate the former. He takes great care to provide necessary context and information for his readymade sculptures, which often comprise objects used in the policing of Blackness. Increasingly, his didactics describe not only the material terrain shared by for-profit prisons, enslaved labour, and public infrastructure, but also the theoretical support necessary to explain contiguity between these artefacts and their ideological implementation. Some of his work, such as Loot (2014), completely obscure the material’s sensual qualities so that one can only grasp the work with reference to the supplementary text. No representation is self-evident, and here much is done in order to evidence that fact. In this way, the audience gets a sense of how materials can be simultaneously charged and banal—if I cannot see the stolen copper when it’s under my nose, then maybe the conditions that necessitate theft are also hidden from me. Ellen Lesperance pursues similar tactics: one ongoing series of work features drawings of garment patterns derived from clothes worn during direct action protests. These patterns exist after the fact, but point to potential future actualization in a forthcoming upheaval, or perhaps as an affirmative aesthetic taken from and intended for politically-coded activity. In Nadia Myre’s Indian Act (1999–2002), a representation of the eponymous piece of legislature is beaded over so that the colonial text is rendered in white blocks, and the margins in red. There is a metaphorical aspect to the work, but Myre establishes contiguity between the document and that which it seeks to control: assignation of Indigeneity, permissible cultural activities, and the imperative to learn English, all of which is counter-signified in the group beadwork activities that produced the artwork.

Discursive contiguity underscores the work of artists like Santiago Sierra and Deanna Bowen. Sierra infamously reproduces exploitative labour practices but relocated to spaces of high visibility, such as museums and biennials. Sculptures often comprise paid human participants reduced to their most politically symbolic attributes, such as veterans hired to stand facing corners of a room, or Iraqi immigrants remunerated for being covered in polyurethane foam. That these actions are legal, waged, and carried out by willing participants—but may nonetheless be perceived as immoral—is precisely his critique: “Self-criticism makes you feel morally superior, and I give high society and high culture the mechanisms to unload their morality and their guilt.”3 Where Sierra emphasizes contradictions in morality, Bowen’s work plays with visibility to explore moral consistency despite legal reforms. By exhibiting historical materials like discriminatory legal documents and Klu Klux Klan regalia—sometimes restaging television interviews and court transcripts—Bowen produces schisms between historical activity and contemporary norms. By temporally dislocating this material, and thereby allowing it to exist within the open framework of artistic discourse, the work’s content is experienced as a taboo violation before it is understood as anachronistic. The work is not softened by inclusion in archives or ethnographies, like Sierra it is the relocation into artistic space which elicits the shock. And the shock—which originates at the level of content—refers one to other accepted (if not acceptable) manifestations of structural exploitation and discrimination. Discursive contiguity uses disruptions in a local context (e.g., the gallery) in order to refer to a broader context (e.g., politics). In this way, we get a sense of how distinct spheres of experience may be interrelated.

Work in this mode adheres to humanist principles, using displaced events and objects to elicit empathy and recognition. The provenance of specific materials is a stand-in for otherwise invisible systems of oppression. It is common for this mode of representation to underscore the lack of self-evidency in matter while treating the critique as implicit. That is, even if conditions of exploitation are newly revealed by the metonymic artwork, the work still assumes a cohesive morality among its audience in order to attain its politics: the shock only works if the audience already objects to such events prior to their depiction in the artwork. At the formal level, the work challenges what is valued separately from how value is produced. The artist makes the work and a political occurrence contiguous through material–discursive means, while the viewer reckons with the shift in value that obliges them to look at a bag of stolen copper or read the condemnation of a Canadian sit-in.4

3. Metaphoric form: Art as criticism

The form of art can be understood as that which enables its circulation and exhibition. Institutions in this sense represent the communicative channel that shapes and permits individual communications. In some strains of institutional critique, the artwork’s materials are the same materials that enable its presence within the institution. However, just as metaphor tends to operate at the level of content and metonymy tends to operate at the level of form, we will need to make some clarifications in order to discuss what is meant by metaphoric form.

The broad genre of institutional critique can be used to exemplify metaphoric form par excellence. In the final instance, institutional critique comprises an array of sanctioned and permissible disruptions. Even if these practices are a source of tension within the institution, i.e. between curatorial departments and board members, the viewer’s experience of the work is one that both aims to challenge and also self-affirm the institution as a necessary condition for art. That is, to rephrase Sierra’s above comment, “self-criticism begets mastery.” What produces a metaphoric rather than metonymic relationship is the function of the institution itself. Certainly many of the projects nominated under the umbrella of institutional critique could not have occurred nor would have been permitted anywhere else—but the artist, in order to remain legible within the discourse of art while simultaneously challenging its constituency, must actualize their critique in a metaphorical sense to address the reified institution of art. A specific institution is necessitated to curate or commission this critique so that the critique may refer to institutions in the broader sense. This is not to say that a critique fails if it succeeds, so to speak, only that material acts within an individual institution become metaphors for discursive interventions within the concept of institutions writ large. Only metaphor can contradict itself in such a way, holding disparate concepts in blatant tension with one another—in fact this contradiction is necessary in order to generate a new understanding of political conditions. In this way, the frictions within an apparently homogenous institution are represented through the contradictions of its collection (Fred Wilson), the partisan affiliations of its board (Andrea Fraser), the inequity of its workers (Joshua Schwebel), or the disparity of its public and private roles (Occupy Berlin Biennale). These are all challenges to the form of artistic discourses, hence their inclusion as reforms. Metaphoricity arises because the critique emerges from within the discourse it attacks, and is captured by this discourse in the final instance. Whereas other artistic movements have defined themselves in relation to previous movements or aesthetic paradigms, institutional critique takes aim at artistic infrastructure itself—producing a synchronic rather than diachronic critique. As Andrea Fraser writes in “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique,” “‘critique’ appears even less specific than ‘institution,’ vacillating between a rather timid ‘exposing,’ ‘reflecting,’ or ‘revealing,’ on the one hand, and visions of the revolutionary overthrow of the existing museological order on the other.”5 She argues that the dialectic of projection and reception that is at the core of aesthetic engagement ensures the expectation of art produces the institutionalization of art. One cannot contemplate an artwork separately from the discourse of art. Furthermore, “no matter how public in placement, immaterial, transitory, relational, everyday, or even invisible, what is announced and perceived as art is always already institutionalized, simply because it exists within the perception of participants in the field of art as art.”6 We regard art as something distinct from other utile forms of aesthetics or creative production: art is institutionalized in discourse. Ultimately what is metaphoric about the category of metaphoric form is not the way in which unlike concepts are assimilated through analogy, but the way in which a single concept (art) is made dissimilar to itself. The institution (the channel) and the critique (the communication) are two sides of the same coin.

4. Metonymic form: Art as philosophy

The metonymic form of artistic politics takes as its basis the recursive unity of communication and channel. Elsewhere, Leigh Tennant and I have nominated the term “conceptual materialism” to describe this approach.7 Here, art intervenes in a discursive sphere not just by unrepressing it, displacing its working into clear view, but by articulating its exterior. As with any discursive element, the exterior is produced through argument; because it exists but is not yet legible it requires facilitation to become evident. In this way, political capacities become excessive to the reform of what is already legible as politics, and instead articulate a new mode by which this terrain can be apprehended. Put simply, art in this mode politicizes its form by proposing a new discursive lens through which to apprehend the work. It radicalizes aesthetics.

This new legibility can be instantiated in two ways. In the first method, art becomes more or less seamless with life through a form that transgresses the institution’s capacity to hold, own, or distribute artworks. Here the work contests the validity of an institution’s claim to art by circumventing the institution. I of course refer to institution in the sense of galleries and art world infrastructures, but it also applies to our above definition of art as inextricable from the reified discourse of art. In the work of Tehching Hsieh, Lee Lozano, and Mierle Laderman Ukeles, art becomes an ineffective discursive label for the relatively holistic practices in question, and yet the artists double-down on the necessity of calling it art. Even for Lozano, whose infamous Drop Out Piece (c. 1970) marks the end of her engagement with the art world, it remains an artwork even as she rejects the vocation of artist. We can consider this metonymically rather than metaphorically as she does not denounce art or its institutionalization by critiquing one within the other, but because she decouples the dialectic of artist–viewer in herself while retaining their contiguity. It is a counter-productive act. Her relationship to the work is still one of producer, but completely redefined in the context of conventional artistic attribution.

In Hseih’s practice, an artwork represents a rearrangement in value. As with Lozano, this representation does not necessarily occur from the perspective of the viewer, but instead results from the artist radically displacing his own subjectivity. One could debate whether he was “really” imprisoned or homeless in One Year Performance 1978–1979 (Cage Piece) and One Year Performance 1981–1982 (Outdoor Piece)—it is fair to ask if he maintained the identity and presumably the support granted an artist—but it would be a mistake to view the work as a simulation of marginality. Rather, the work makes his performance contiguous with marginality through the common form of diminished agency. In The synthetic proposition: Conceptualism and the political referent in contemporary art, Nizan Shaked writes that:

Within this logic, marginalisation does not have to be activated as a position of victimisation, defined against a dominant entity and inadvertently serving to buttress the power of domination. It also need not appear through metaphoric association as organically connected to one typology of identity over another. Identity, in its historical connection to marginalisation, is rather a condition to be analysed and eradicated. It can form a basis for solidarity by metonymy, taking into account that living conditions and environment form the positions from which identities can speak.8

Here, the metonymic form results from the reconceptualization of the relation between an artist and their work. It is this reconceptualization that ensures the work operates outside of extant infrastructures in an actual rather than simulated manner.

The second way in which art adopts a metonymic form is through the reconceptualization of the relation between a viewer and the work. Theory and praxis are thus united in the realm of aesthetics: the work arrests the viewer’s attention, and provides a list of demands. Such a method is realized in the production of writing by artists, taking the form of an artist statement, manifesto, or critical analysis. In Shaked’s words: “Manifestos are identity-producing texts—they elicit the identification of the community towards which they are aimed, consolidating group action around them.”9 Here we might consider artists like Allan Sekula and Supports/Surfaces—and indeed there has been speculation that their commitments to writing precluded the broader dispersion of their work, which is to say its legibility within a populist canon.10 The status quo counter-argument is familiar to us: writing about work empties the work of interpretive possibilities, it shuts out a potential viewer, precludes free association, and so on. The assumption is that elaboration on the part of the artist is a selfish act, as if clarification reduces complexity. But more so than other signs, art shrugs off a definitive form of meaning because every encounter with the work begs a reevaluation of itself. Lacking clear utility, we inquire something of an artwork every time we look at it, even if only on the level of “what? how? why?” This interrogative interpretation is what differentiates a bag of copper from a bag of copper. “In art, generosity is not a function of meaning; it is the refusal to mystify one’s own conditions of possibility.”11

Adrian Piper and Charles Gaines further exemplify artists who compliment (rather than supplement) their work with writing. “For Gaines, the ways in which objects are categorised and how it is that they appear are never equal. His interest lies not in defining the world, but in showing the fissures, revealing how our understanding of the world is culturally produced … Instead of pontificating, the work moves content from one form into another.”12 Or, in Gaines’ own words: “I was interested in actually exploring the tropes of representation … reorganizing our thoughts and the whole enterprise of how we perceive things and then how we name the things we perceive … I did this through language or through representation rather than undermining language through a more empirical investigation.”13

Similarly, Piper’s concept of a “meta-art” reveals that the artistic discourse cannot be taken as is—especially as practices of racism and misogyny recur despite a veneer of progressive language—and instead must be critiqued not only in the form of artworks, but also in the discursive forms of reviews and didactics that guide one from work to work.14 It is these discursive venues that constitute the true infrastructure of art’s institutions, moreso than any individual museum or exhibition. What these artists propose is a politics that stands in stark relief to modes of pandering electability and open-ended circulation: they stake a claim with their work, for their work, and, in so doing, reveal the lines of contiguity between their work and the subject of critique while simultaneously affirming an exterior. This act gives way to new ways of seeing, comprehending, and valuing.

Art as metonymic form does not necessarily conform to the idealistic political goal of “changing the world,” but it does change how we can apprehend and define the world. By understanding aesthetics as a recursive process of projection and reception, art in this mode can establish contiguities between unlike discourses and materials. That is, it paints a more robust picture of the world as it is instead of deferring to route idealism. In so doing, metonymic forms accept the reality of our agency as individuals. Just as manifestoes or artists’ statements can be considered a kind of “limitation” to the open-ended interpretation of art, the fact is that limits are useful in focusing and clarifying our ambitions so that we might better pursue them. By accepting the really-existing limits of our agency, we enable ourselves to actualize that agency. That art locates political agency within the private realm of apprehension and comprehension should be understood as a mark of its power rather than evidence of its ineffectivity.

Given these conditions, and having established this metonymic contiguity between art and politics, we can articulate a political art that is not overdetermined by the form or content of external discourses. Although art often references and reorganizes other discourses as artistic content, and although art can be thought through social or economic contexts, its political capacity remains metaphorical unless we account for the aesthetic forms that structure our intentions and interpretations. Art can instantiate value on an aesthetic level just as politics instantiates value on a social level. From this point on, we leave behind the abstract question of measurable impact or “political efficacy,” and instead treat the affect of art as a concrete if conceptual relationship between artist and audience that manifests through intention, interpretation, value, and force. For these are the only terrains in which many of us begin to really experience emancipation: in a liberation of thought and the pursuit of unexploited creativity.

–Steven Cottingham, January 2020

Cover image: Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance 1980–1981 (Time Clock Piece), 1980–1981. For one year, from 11 April 1980 through 11 April 1981, Tehching Hsieh punched a time clock every hour on the hour. Each time he punched the clock, he took a single picture of himself with a 16mm movie camera, which together yield a 6-minute film animation. He shaved his head before the piece, so his growing hair reflects the passage of time.


  1. Teresa Margolles, ¿De qué otra cosa podríamos hablar? Limpieza (What Else Could We Talk About? Cleaning), 2009, installation consisting of a repeating performance carried out by 1–3 people mopping the floors of the exhibition space with a mix of water obtained from humidifying fabrics that previously absorbed fluids and left overs of crime scenes in different cities of northern Mexico, dimensions variable
  2. Claire Fontaine, Earthman, 2016, polystyrene, cement glue, earth, twigs, sticks and stones, 73 x 24 x 16 in. (186 x 60 x 40 cm)
  3. Andrea Bowers, Climate Change is Real (Global Climate Action Summit, San Francisco), 2018, aluminum, paint, neon, LED lights, 86 x 456 x 8 in. (218 x 1158 x 20 cm). Installation view, Global Climate Action Summit, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, September 10–17, 2018
  4. Cameron Rowland, Loot, 2014, copper fittings, bag, 19 x 17 x 15 in. (47 x 43 x 38 cm). Rental. At some point basic utilities like electricity and water were services controlled by the state, because they relied so heavily on public infrastructure. More and more these flows are valved by private corporations. Someone sold these usable copper fittings in this bag to a scrap yard. They were bought back in the same bag. Copper has a function, its base material has an inherent value.
  5. Ellen Lesperance, August, 2014, Ferguson, Misery: I Am a Woman, 2015, gouache and graphite on tea-stained paper, 22 x 30 in. (56 x 75 cm)
  6. Nadia Myre, Indian Act, 1999–2002. Indian Act speaks of the realities of colonization—the effects of contact, and its often-broken and untranslated contracts. The piece consists of all 56 pages of the Federal Government’s Indian Act mounted on stroud cloth and sewn over with red and white glass beads. Each word is replaced with white beads sewn into the document; the red beads replace the negative space.Between 1999 and 2002, Nadia Myre enlisted over 230 friends, colleagues and strangers to help her bead over the Indian Act. 
  7. Santiago Sierra, The wall of a gallery pulled out, inclined 60 degrees from the ground and sustained by 5 people, 2000. A tablaroca wall installed in the gallery was pulled out from its place, and for four hours a day, over a period of five days, five workers acted as a buttress to keep it at 60 degrees from the ground. Four of them held the wall while a fifth checked that the inclination was correct. For the five working days, each worker earned 700 pesos, about $65. 
  8. Deanna Bowen, American Klans — Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Presented to Calvin F. Craig, Grand Dragon Realm of Georgia by Walter E. Fisher, June 6, 1966, 2013, light trans print, plexiglass lightbox, 48 x 60 in. (122 x 152 cm) 
  9. Fred Wilson, Guarded View, 1991, wood, painted steel, fabric, dimensions variable
  10. Andrea Fraser, 2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics, 2018, vinyl, 146 x 181 in. (370 x 460 cm). Installation view, SITE Santa Fe in SITElines Casa tomada, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2018.
  11. Joshua Schwebel, Subsidy, 2015. Subsidy is the title of an intervention and three week displacement enacted as the outcome of a year-long residency at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin.My artistic project within the residency was to pay the seven (otherwise unpaid) interns whose internships coincided with my year in residence by redirecting the €3,000 allotted for my exhibition budget back to the institution with specific demand that it be used to pay the interns.
  12. Tehching Hsieh, One Year Performance 1978–1979 (Cage Piece), 1978–1979.In this performance, which lasted from 29 September 1978 through 30 September 1979, Tehching Hsieh locked himself in an 11.5-by-9-by-8-foot (3.5 by 2.7 by 2.4 m) wooden cage, furnished only with a wash basin, lights, a pail, and a single bed.During the year, he did not allow himself to talk, to read, to write, or to listen to radio and TV. A lawyer, Robert Projansky, notarized the entire process and made sure the artist never left the cage during that one year.

    His loftmate came daily to deliver food, remove the artist’s waste, and take a single photograph to document the project. In addition, this performance was open to be viewed once or twice a month from 11am to 5pm.

  13. Lee Lozano, General Strike Piece, 1969, offset print, 11 x 8 in. (28 cm x 22 cm)
  14. Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Outside, July 22, 1973. Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, 1973, 9 black and white photographs, 3 pages of performance documents, each 11 x 9 in. (28 x 22 cm)
  15. Allan Sekula, School is a Factory (detail), 1978–1980, 10 framed gelatin silver print on paper, installation dimensions 40 x 403 in. (101 x 1024 cm)
  16. Supports/Surfaces, installation view of works by Patrick Saytour, Daniel Dezueze, and Claude Viallat, Poetic Encounters, Coarse, France, July 21–27, 1969
  17. Installation view of Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, March 31–July 22, 2018.
  18. Charles Gaines, Faces 1: Identity Politics, #7, Dolores Huerta, 2018, acrylic sheet, acrylic paint, lacquer, wood, 74 x 59 x 6 in. (188 x 150 x 15 cm)


  1. “Claire Fontaine,” Frieze, 4 March 2007.
  2. Amanda Arnold, “Artist Apologizes Over Tone-Deaf #MeToo Piece at Art Basel,” The Cut, 12 June 2019.
  3. “Santiago Sierra in conversation with Teresa Margolles,” BOMB, Issue 86 (Winter 2004).
  4. Koko and Johnson, “What did the postman bring today?” Akimblog, 18 January 2011. “I skimmed over what seemed to be a photocopied newsletter, my eyes landing on sentences such as: ‘Though the protest continues, its emphasis and dignity is fast disappearing, yet it continues. The demonstration has become an end in itself. The protestors are losing the respect of others and are becoming a nuisance.’ and ‘A sit-in at the Consulate can be construed as a violation of American rights of privacy.’ My brain was having a serious what-the-fuck moment. … I flipped it over … ‘Oh, it must be for Deanna’s show!’”
  5. Andrea Fraser, “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique,” Artforum (September 2005).
  6. Ibid.
  7. Leigh Tennant and Steven Cottingham, “The Means of Discursive Production,” QOQQOON (May 2019).
  8. Nizan Shaked, The synthetic proposition: Conceptualism and the political referent in contemporary art (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017), 240.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Consider the following remarks: Raphael Rubinstein, “Theory and Matter,” Art in America, 3 September 2014: “The absence of any serious discussion (by the artists themselves, as well as by sympathetic critics) about this new work might be one reason why it makes such an easy target for financial speculation.” Jack McGrath, “Why Was New York So Afraid of Allan Sekula?” Frieze, 1 August 2019. “[Allan Sekula’s] exclusion reveals a rare point of unanimity in an otherwise polyvocal art scene. But why was New York so afraid of Sekula? Possible answers spring to mind: the work can look banal at first; it requires substantial temporal and intellectual investment from its audience; both its political and aesthetic commitments fell out of fashion during Sekula’s lifetime; its unmistakable Marxism repelled art’s principal financiers (namely corporations and the super-rich) while refusing all customary aesthetic consolations.” Finally, consider Nairy Baghramian, “A Talk Without Image Objects,” lecture, Le Mepris #1, New School, New York, 15 March 2012: “The tendency of the art work to be turned into a subject is further promoted by the growing silence of the artist-subject, who thereby threatens to turn him or herself into a self-mystifying object. This objectified artist-subject seems willing to effectively annul him or herself, in order to become a silent producer. That turns the artist into something like a fetish object; with the only agents in art discourse left being curators, commentators and market players exercising control.”
  11. Mark Hutchinson with Paul O’Neill, “On the public,” (tape runs out), 2007/2008, poster work. Furthermore: “If the artist’s statement is a legitimized moment for the artist to speak, this moment throws into contrast the times when the artist is expected to remain silent. / The idea that artists should not write about their work is a means of oppression.”
  12. Shaked, The synthetic proposition, 239.
  13. HauserWirth, “Charles Gaines: Evidencing Reality,” YouTube, 15 September 2019, 5:55.
  14. Adrian Piper, “In Support of Meta-Art,” Out of order, out of sight: Vol. 2: Selected writings in art criticism, 1967–1992 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996).