No 15.

Unfinished Work: A Roundtable on L’informe

with Aria Dean, Bruce Hainley, Ruba Katrib, Emmanuel Olunkwa, and Lauren O'Neill-Butler

For our first thematic outing, we turned to several art historical texts including a roundtable published in the winter 1994 volume of the journal October (“The Politics of the Signifier II: A Conversation on the Informe and the Abject”) and the related exhibition and accompanying catalogue “L’informe: mode d’emploi” (The Formless: Instructions for Use), which was curated by Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss and held at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in summer 1996, twenty-five years ago. The show was billed as a “radical” game-changer, as heralding the next major art historical movement, and as a violent reaction to modernism writ large. Was it?

In the following roundtable, we query that nearly forgotten history. We wanted to hear from writer Bruce Hainley, one of our favorite practitioners of form’s undoing, and we wanted to continue Dawn Chan’s conversation with curator Ruba Katrib (in the spirit of seeing our interviews as unfolding conversations). This roundtable was conducted in March 2021.

—November eds.

LO-B

Ruba, I’d like to ask you to start us off by talking about your show “A Disagreeable Object” at SculptureCenter in 2012, and how you arrived at strategies implemented by the Surrealists. Did you look back to the 1996 exhibition “L’Informe: mode d’emploi”?

RK

I definitely looked at the Pompidou show. I looked at the catalogue and the images. I read Bataille. But it was definitely not in my mind to make a recourse or a response to the Pompidou show. I was actually focusing on Giacometti, who also features in the Pompidou show, on how he was working and how his departure from the Surrealists could be thought of in relation to a new generation of artists and how they were working.

EO

How did you take form to task? How were you engaging materiality and within that, how was form functioning conceptually?

RK

I had just moved to New York to work at the SculptureCenter as a curator. I noticed a dematerialized practice was emerging along with Surrealist strategies that artists were using in relation to new technologies and commodity culture. This was a new generation of artists; the show marked Ian Cheng’s debut in an institution, for example. It was also the first time that Anicka Yi was in an institutional show. It was Camille Henrot’s first time showing in an American exhibition with work that is very different from what she’s known for now. I saw this emerging generation of artists that were working in a way that would probably be considered under a new materialist discourse later on. At the time, however, it was weirdly framed as post-internet art. But with a lot of these artists, there was really an investment in objects and an expanded sense of materials and materiality, and in relation to the body and an extreme throw-away culture. Artists like Pamela Rosenkranz were really taking hold of those discourses. I was really looking at Giacometti's sculpture Disagreeable Object and also Disagreeable Object to Be Thrown Away as artworks that were still enigmatic and could function as an organizing principle for the exhibition, as well as theories such as informe and baseness that emerged around those considerations.

BH

Did you have a Giacometti work in the show?

RK

No, it was all contemporary artists. It was a setup for the premise basically. The most senior artists in the show were Charles Long and Sarah Lucas.

BH

From where did Giacometti arise in terms of the exhibit's conceptualization?

RK

None of the artists were necessarily thinking about Giacometti. And I’m not sure if Disagreeable Object is a work that comes to people’s minds, or how well known it is. These two objects I was thinking of: Disagreeable Object, which is the more phallic one and Disagreeable Objects to be Thrown Away, which is the one that can’t really sit straight and has little nubs coming off of it and the indentations, are very disturbing, evocative, and misbehaving. And they are suggestive of and engaging Surrealists tactics. Also, Giacometti left the Surrealists soon after, because he thought that they were making luxury goods, works that were too commercial and too decorative. I was interested in that line of when something actually is a found object or an actual commodity, but it’s in-between or not quite there. And the way these works evoke and connect to a bodily relationship. Giacometti was straddling all of that.

AD

I’m curious about the choice to go with calling the show “A Disagreeable Object,” versus referencing the one to be thrown away.

RK

The title could evoke both without having that extended title attached to it.

EO

Ruba, what are your feelings on Giacometti and Bataille? What for you sutures them together? I was reading about the informe and how Bataille was really frustrated with André Breton and the work he was making, and how it made the Surrealist movement too legible and didactic. Bataille felt like Breton had sterilized the concept of Surrealism as a form. It made me think of Surrealism as a kind of Pop culture that was openly being embraced as this polished accessible form of communicating a reality. Bataille was more focused on complicating the nature and reception of Surrealism because he felt like it wasn’t rigorous enough.

AD

Yeah. I went through a period mid-quarantine where I was like, just deep in Bataille–particularly the Acéphale writings. Maybe this is filtered through my asymmetrical artist brain, but I feel like he got frustrated with an affective or aesthetic approach of Surrealist art and its discourse. What I love about Bataille is that he was really thinking very structurally. That continues to be the site of slippage in how his work is taken up. Even with the informe and the way that abjection has been taken up in art, it’s removing its structural or operational elements. Which is maybe a cleaving of these ideas that starts to happen when he parts with the Surrealists.

EO

I was thinking of Documents as a structure and platform where he could let these different ideas submerge and permeate alongside one another. I think of him as a sort of compressionist, as he was taking all of these different ideas and references and mounding them together to produce a new object and make people think more critically. The magazine featured the “Critical Dictionary” and themes for some of the issues were jazz, archeology, and Picasso. It was more a conceptual project than one that was concerned with explicitly naming a movement, because to him all of these things were interrelated.

BH

Bataille had already abandoned Dada, ditched many Dada artists, too. He doesn’t always strike me as into group activities—community, but not “isms,” not groups. Why is Bataille returning right now? Henrik Olesen just had a show open up last weekend in LA, and the press release mentions Bataille. I hope that part of our conversation can be a thinking through of this fertile text, barely a hundred words long, on the informe. We shouldn’t forget the spider, the earthworm, the spittle that he discusses, these things that too often get crushed underneath the foot, which is only one of the ways “Formless” is such a prescient anti-fascist gesture. Bataille’s creaturely, anti-fascist thinking might have something to do with his (uncanny?) return in this moment.

LO-B

I have a question about that. The bit that sticks out to me in those 100 or so words is, “What it [formlessness] designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere.” To me, this “no rights” is quite Arendtian, or proto-Arendtian since it was written in December 1929, well before she formulated her ideas in the aftermath of World War II. I’m thinking here of Arendt’s famous writing on the “right to have rights,” the only inalienable human right according to her, which is only guaranteed by the state, as it’s the only institution that is supposed to protect and guarantee the rights of individuals. Without that protection, I could see Arendt agreeing that one’s status as a refugee is quite similar to the spider, earthworm, spittle. Of course, Bataille’s spin is so much more poetic than Arendt but I see the connections between the two, particularly in terms of fascism.

BH

With the “L’Informe” exhibition, organized by Krauss and Bois, and October’s roundtable on these ideas, from 1994, it becomes clear that they believe that there’s a right and wrong way to read the informe—and that they have some privileged rights to that correct reading. Molly Nesbit gave a talk recently, and I asked her why she decided to move away from academic publishers, starting with Their Common Sense. She talked about Duchamp being “owned” in the same way—as if there’s a right way to speak about Duchamp, that some have rights to speak about him and others don’t. When her book came out, in 2000, her take on Duchamp was absolutely “not right,” her book, in certain zones, “squashed.” Without mentioning Bataille, Nesbit spoke about Krauss’s steadfast adherence to the superstructure. Nesbit said something along the lines of, “I am for the base, and that becomes a problem for anyone who relies on superstructures.” So this is something to consider now in terms of how theory circulates and who circulates it. Who has the “rights” to circulate it? How are they earned? When should certain readings be questioned and, perhaps, revoked? Does anyone have rights on or over anything forever? With the “Formless” text, Bataille works against such uninterrogated “rights,” and it's interesting that he turns to nature, to the bug and to excrement. Spider, earthworm, spittle, these things aren’t just metaphorical, they’re material.

RK

I reread Yve-Alain Bois’s “The Use Value of Formless.” And I thought: Could anyone be writing for planned obsolescence more? He was just talking to himself.

AD

Yeah, in rereading Krauss, especially the conclusion to “Formlessness: A User’s Guide,” there’s a sense of (undue) clarity that they’ve absolutely got the right perspective. It’s pretty funny—especially when she’s talking about Cindy Sherman. I realized I had read this piece years ago, in college, and even then, I had been like, “This is the worst pitch for Sherman I’ve ever read.” They talk about how the informe is operating in Sherman’s photos, specifically Untitled 87, with the light scattering on her body. This is, to me, maybe an example of how true Bruce’s superstructure comment is. Krauss’s analysis of this photograph operates in a register that the writing that they’re drawing on to analyze the photo, namely Bataille, is not concerned with. They’re like, “Oh, you can’t really tell what’s happening with the body. Because the light,” and try to pass that off as a materialist analysis of some sort. But it’s totally superstructural and preoccupied with ideology. Maybe this is because of feminism—I took huge issue with, and this is my much larger beef with Sherman, Laura Mulvey, and feminism from that era—and its relationship to psychoanalysis. They insist that the relations of power, the gaze, the abject, whatever, happens to fundamentally continue to return to the subject through psychoanalysis and to meaning through semiotics. With Sherman for instance, the argument seems to be that she's obscuring the semiotics of the female body, but it’s like, I don’t think that’s even the battlefield. Anyway, it’s also funny that they get mad at Georges Didi-Huberman for his reading of Bataille, when he might do a better job, in my view. I was re-reading his “Index of the Absent Wound,” which is such a great piece of writing about the Shroud of Turin and the body, stains and traces. I just feel very confused about how they’re applying these concepts.

EO

The issue I had while reading the catalogue is that as a reader what we’re engaging in is non negotiable, we can’t assess what the show is doing because the text is propaganda. For me after a certain point I started to ask myself if the show even needed to exist because the text and book are so concept driven and aren't explicitly about the objects. They wrote about the show in an architectural sense where the writing itself was the promise and declaration to and of a future.

AD

And also, I mean, it brings up this big issue. They’re trying to give voice to what these works are doing in relation to this idea of the informe through language and through their ability to analyze it as people who are trained as art historians or theorists. This act drags the project of the informe back into this territory that it has no business trafficking in. Like they can only access what a Manzoni piece, for instance, does in this impoverished way. Any writing about art runs the risk of doing this, but it’s especially at issue here with works that are supposedly so directly operating outside of signification and coherence in this way.

RK

The way we would approach this now is the specificity of these objects, the specificity of these materials, like in Gordon Matta-Clark’s agar pieces and the types of substances he used to make them, like yeast, Yoohoo, screws, penicillin, etc. There’s cultural use of materials and there are chemical compounds they are composed of, and they are separated through language yet merge into one through the artwork. This gets to what Bataille was also talking about, which is getting rid of the borders. The informe is also transgressing the borders. That’s something that has a lot of political implications. There’s this one brief paragraph where he talks about matter becoming something else or passing through borders. That has a lot of really interesting implications then and also now, and also in terms of the specificity of the actual material that's being used.

AD

Borders, yes. I’ve been really interested in how in both of Achille Mbembe’s most recent books, he goes on these brief detours through Bataille. In Necropolitics, the larger thesis delineates an “ethics of the passer-by.” It’s an undoing of borders, politically and epistemologically. When you mentioned the no rights thing, Lauren, it also made me think of this mental pet project that I've been engrossed in: trying to find Black Bataille. Some strains of thinking in Black studies around the way that Blackness intersects with all of these Bataillean propositions–the informe, the abject, base materialism, the accursed share. Even the very general invocation of “the wretched” has its obvious coherence with Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. This figuring of the properties of an ultimate outside in a metaphysical sense. Then also on a political level, the question of rights: the great difficulty of conceiving the Black subject in the West as having rights, as having a right to rights.

EO

Ruba, it made me think in terms of specificity, it seems like “A Disagreeable Object” was object oriented and needed that specificity as a launch pad or thinking chamber. It sounds like the specificity of the material was the driving concept or thesis for the show and it didn’t really ever step outside of that framework. “L’informe” as a show and as a text were two different projects. The show isn’t so much concerned with itself or how the materials/works are in conversation with each other. It’s clear that they’re not curators because of the disconnect in the conceptualization of the show. They are narrating how these objects intersect and what they’re doing through the text but as a show the works don’t exercise the ideology itself. I feel like the specificity exists in the language, the actual naming of the things, though they explicitly abstract any coherent reading of the work with this language, and it serves more as an adhesive or glue for the various forms that the show takes and tries to make it them legible. While reading the text I couldn't extract anything, and I didn't understand why they chose certain artists. It made me think: is Art History Real? Or is it this extensive project of favorites? It’s like the drink of the season that someone’s serving up that we’re all meant to drink.

AD

The Kool-Aid, perhaps?

EO

Yeah, again, the text is hard to penetrate because it doesn’t seem like they themselves knew what they wanted. It’s suspicious that they took so few words from Bataille and attempted to build this world out of them, though they weren't willing to build out a comprehensible structure or infrastructure to house them as concepts. They tried to take this singular piece of lumber and try to build out this structure of this proverbial house and decided to scrap together and bind various kinds of wood that either mimicked or echoed the presentation or material reality of the wood and just went on with it. It’s a material problem. Right?

LO-B

I think so. The lumber to me is modernism. I get that Krauss and Bois wanted to deconstruct modernism and Clement Greenberg with their exhibition and various texts, but what happened instead is almost a rededication to formalism with all the same kind of Greenbergian exclusionary stance. In addition, there was a holding on to definitions, to this pinning down of things we’ve mentioned. It just seems like an impossible project from start to finish, particularly because it involved Bataille, who clearly didn't want formlessness to be properly pinned down.

BH

Their exclusionary, punitive, revamped formalism leads directly to their need to argue for abstraction versus the (for them) bad object of figuration. Similarly policed parameters muddle so-called institutional critique: the institution seems to have very tight and tidy architecture, delimiting what is within and what is outside of it. The critique rarely extends to things like the institution of marriage, for example, however relevant that might be to an artist’s career trajectory. Krauss and Bois state the period of 1935 to 1975 makes the heart of their show. It’s roughly WWII to the gruesome slow fade of the American War in Vietnam, and yet they make no mention of war. I tried to think of an exhibit focused on a similar period, 1935 to 1975, one that while never basing its conceptualization on or with Bataille nevertheless takes on or up all of what determines his “formless” thinking. Okwui Enwezor, Katy Siegel, and Ulrich Wilmes’s “Postwar” show becomes almost a rebuttal to so many of the problems of Krauss and Bois’s exposition. Bataille certainly thought about destruction and the wretched. He survived WWI. He was tracking baselines, the consequence of spider, earthworm, spittle, these things that get crushed but that might be among the only things to survive a thermonuclear event or Holocaust. On a certain level, Enwezor, Siegel, and Wilmes’s show addressed the global repercussions of world war. The victory of the Allies had reverberations of colonialist enterprise ensnared in it, and left so many nations to deal with blowback and aftershock. I am not only thinking of Palestine. Enwezor and company were trying to think materially, in a manner more complex and geopolitical than how modernism is usually conveyed. What ruptures must affect how we inherit modernism now? What deformation and formlessness (in how we think about what a body is, what life is) start to appear after the nuclear bomb and the Holocaust? It’s important that some of the early photographs in Documents were of the abattoir. Bodies, mutilated and otherwise, ground these strange texts in blood and guts, along with some notion of the documentary. Bois and Krauss’s devotion to abstraction seemingly allows them to obscure what was being done to bodies during the period that their show covered.

AD

The thing that frustrates me is the artists that they chose to talk about and the way that they talk about them. A lot of these people were so heavily concerned with the body, though it was manifest in minimal and abstract form. But they were thinking through the body, exploring and unraveling the subject, how it sits in relation to objects; that's the whole thing. But then “L’Informe” takes all this up and reconfigures it to suit its thesis, conforming this work to an idea of abstraction that the people that they're talking about aren't even necessarily, obsessively indebted to.

EO

What's most frustrating for me is that they’re blatantly trying to assign abstraction form. They’re writing about what’s supposed to be formlessness but yet they’re trying to concretize the abstracted form or the very reading of it, which makes me think about Blackness, which is essentially about the absence and embodiment of abstraction. It makes me think of the time I went on a class trip to Metro Pictures, and we spoke at length with Helene Weiner. She was telling us the oral history of her life and her time working at Artist’s Space and the shows she worked on the 1970s and ’80s. She mentioned Black artists’ frustration at the time and essentially alluded to how she didn’t do anything to better the material conditions of their world, though she was in a position of power. I asked her about Adrian Piper and Howardena Pindell and the racism that they had to endure, and she was like, “Oh, it’s so hard. It was hard for us to focus on their issues and the things (white liberatory feminism) we were trying to accomplish at the time.” It’s not to say that everyone should be plagued with the anxieties of the world but more that there is a moral and ethical responsibility to be informed while practicing in an institutional framework and context. With “L’informe,” to put it simply, I just wanted more self-awareness and self-criticality, not the performance or care of language. It’s hard to engage as a text because it felt like the text turned its back on the very ideas that formlessness is taking to task. They’re trying to force all of these bits and pieces together into this machine...

RK

The show just reinforced a narrative that they predetermined. I think what you’re saying, Bruce, applies to Surrealism as it’s more universal, too. It’s not a trend. It’s a longstanding strategy, and it’s international beyond Euro-American perspectives. It’s so interesting that Krauss and Bois do not mention war. This aspect of war, trauma, and the body being at risk or dismembered is the core of what’s happening. World War I is a huge factor here. For example, Louise Bourgeois saw soldiers returning to France with new prosthetics to replace missing limbs, and this made a great impression on her. Those new prosthetics informed her work. How war is associated with new technology, new imaging technology, and a new way of representation is at the crux when we look at Bataille and other Surrealists. And we should talk about how that expands out into a broader, more international scope of artists responding to trauma and violence.

LO-B

Yes, I also agree the frame of war is so important to consider here. Why was the frame for the Pompidou show psychoanalysis? I know it was popular at the time. As an undergrad in the wake of the exhibition, I wrote a thesis on the abject and Kristeva. So, it was really interesting to revisit these essays so many years later and it’s something I've wanted to do for a long time. But this time around, they left a sour taste in my mouth. It’s not that I’m against psychoanalysis. It’s just the way it was deployed in the name of art that gets me. For instance, why is it always the mother or, in this case, the woman artist, who is seen as abject? I agree a baby needs an object—breast or bottle—for security and that the child doesn’t see whoever’s giving it as a subject. But does that mean the person is necessarily abject because of her bodily fluids? I don’t think it has to be so gendered—and in my experience as a mother it hasn’t been. I understand the picking up of Kristeva for her treatment of Bataille’s notions of the abject and tend to agree with Krauss that Kristeva changes his meaning but still I find it bizarre that throughout the various texts we're talking about here the whole thing becomes so gendered. I have wondered if misogyny plays any role. And I couldn't help but think about that fragment in Maggie Nelson’s The Argnonauts in which she talks about her attendance at a seminar or panel discussion about photography with Krauss and Jane Gallop. Nelson recalls observing Krauss attacking Gallop for taking her own personal situation as a mother as subject matter, at the expense of the histories of photography. It struck Nelson that Krauss’s attack was less about the lack of historical substantiation, than it was about how "Gallop’s maternity had rotted her mind."

BH

There’s a false dichotomy that they set up between figuration and abstraction with the body somehow lost or weirdly occluded in between. On a certain level, Krauss and Bois seem not to want to see the body as abstract, that figuration abstracts. They seem not to want to see language as abstract, at times ruthlessly so. They seem not to want to see life as abstract—brutalized, evacuated, in increasingly fractalized autocommodifications. “Wars are fought by the poor for the rich,” as Gary Indiana put it. The spider and the earthworm and spittle: one way to understand these things would be as figures for the poor. The trauma of the first World War and the 1918 pandemic that takes out, what, 50 million people, don’t they haunt Bataille’s informe essay and so many of his Documents texts? 1929 to 1931, anyone paying attention could smell war coming again, fascism in the air. Without getting into the cruelty and ugliness of the previous governmental administration, I'll just say things can be taken apart really easily. While Bataille studied and witnessed various destructions, the point wasn’t to glorify destruction itself. Refusal to take such violence and cruelty as the base of daily existence leads some to lean into Surrealism. If only we were so lucky and something as fathomable as the surreal were all we had to reckon with as daily life.

AD

This is why I really do think it’s worth continuing to consider some of the other work from October around this time and a bit later. For instance, I think about Hal Foster’s writing on that period and on the Surrealists, which I think is quite good in terms of how he talks about Surrealism as some sort of trauma response, almost. These artists were dealing with the new realities of mechanized bodies, mechanized life, and the effects of the war. Suddenly people are contending with psychic trauma that is unprecedented at that period of time. Then there is a link between that and Foster’s writing on the 1980s and ’90s, on the AIDS era and how that’s another period of intense trauma, though quite different, that suddenly comes swinging into Western life. I do think it’s interesting again, how these movements have been narrated and like defanged in terms of the intensity of what people were dealing with and what was happening around them. And right now, yes, Surrealism is finding its way back in. Though Surrealism is not the right word for me. I think it’s really just fantasy. People are not facing up, you know, the economic, political, biological reality of what’s going on right now, instead retreating into fantasies that are based on totally real phenomena like identity politics. A very real thing that is operative in our world, but there's a fantastical version of dealing with those questions, and that's where a lot of art discourse is at the moment. I feel pretty confused and frustrated by the kind of tools that we have, or the willingness to search for tools, you know? I don't know. Maybe just because there's so many bad things that are happening, people don’t really know or it feels like we're on a suicide mission, you know what I mean?

EO

I’m always thinking about who is writing the narrative. Thinking about the subaltern and the orators and historians of our time and the divide. Bruce really drove the point home with Indiana’s thought about the wars being fought by the poor for the rich. How do we combat that? How do we bring the reality of what's happening on the ground up here in the clouds?

AD

This is, I think, as you’re saying, the sort of superstructural problem of this art historical lineage. People are trying to deal with superstructural thinking instead of the base. Not to always be like, “because the internet,” but I think in this moment, there’s not even an ability to understand that that’s what’s happening; we’re distracted because now information appears to be part of the confusion...

EO

I’m glad you brought up the internet because I was thinking about it in the earlier part of the conversation when we were talking about Ruba’s “Disagreeable Object” show. What was the technology that was being referenced at the time?

RK

People were associating it with a post-internet moment, but I found that limiting. The new technological moment is also a better awareness of the micro, versus the macro, such as the bacterial and the microbe. It’s different levels of visuality that are emerging with new technologies that affect how the body is understood or experienced. It’s breaking down compounds and perimeters, as well as altering the body and the understanding of the self on a material level. That’s a relatively new way of understanding material and the body—in a Western capitalist society at least—as well as relationships between human and non-human entities.

BH

Here's a wee hit of synchronicity, given Emmanuel’s question about the internet and digital culture, as well Ruba’s show as another point of intersection. Almost daily, I look at Contemporary Art Daily and Contemporary Art Writing Daily. I don’t know who is responsible for the latter. Whoever they are, they recently put out a book, Anti-Ligature Rooms, and the design of the book mirrors the elegant, iconic, hot pink and black cover of Bataille’s Visions of Excess, published by the University of Minnesota thirty-five years ago, edited by Allan Stoekl. I wondered about that sharp design decision, so I wrote to them: “Out of the blue, I was asked to participate in a roundtable on Bataille almost on the same day that I saw your book announcement online. What’s going on there?” They wrote back this full-throated response, pertinent to so much of our discussion tonight:

L'informe is like... *it* ... In my own private Bataille, this is the manifesto, opus. (It’s so succinct and endless!) In a beautiful (or filthy) world, things should not be titles, or definition, but their actions, affects. The more we attribute definitions to things often the less it feels sometimes we're able to control those things. We start to remove the handholds from the rodeo of concepts. (This reaches probably its most egregious form in the political sphere. Terms like ‘abortion’ or ‘gun control’ seem like implacable monoliths, and all tweets/text/news to circle and worship empower these mantras for the differing congregants. That's overblown, but it trickles down into words like ‘Instagram’ or ‘surrealism.’ They become slick monoliths. But the world is so fucking surreal! Magritte couldn't even have predicted how boring his paintings would become!)
But so I take l’informe—maybe paradoxically—as reinstating aspects, no more mathematical abstracts, but instead the dirt in the flower. The flower for the dirt? I think this is the ligature point, a retexturizing of the world. My thought is, what the literary can do, and what Bataille—when he was good—did so well was restoring things, their feeling, their thorns. The stuff somewhere between theory and literary. It’s when he’s writing about The Big Toe—it's almost speculative-fiction. His ability to place things into other things. Argue a flower becoming its filth. It’s an act of impregnation. Or his own words: ‘one can only paraphrase this laughable duel by introducing, not as a sentence, but more precisely as an ink stain.’
A staining of things. Making stuff ‘sticky.’ But also preventing their full recuperation, the spider.
Anti-Ligature Rooms is about attempting a similar de-forming stuff. I just want to make sure we all know how the world feels.

While I guess CAWD might be older than I am, given the synchronicity with which they started their site and their deft negotiation of this moment, I assume they’re someone/people who is/are, more than likely, of the same generation of most of the artists in Ruba’s show. Perhaps even younger. It just struck me, when Emmanuel went to the digital, that there’s something about that *form* that Contemporary Art Daily set up and Contemporary Art Writing Daily responded to, discursively, a new form and interface for the reception of what still operates under the sign of art. The pandemic has only intensified that *form,* a way of seeing, receiving. The discursive retort to this form, as writing, mainlines Bataille, believing that something has been drained out of art and thinking about it, and the muck needs to be put back in.

AD

Honestly, that was a beautiful email.

RK

I’m really jealous that you get emails like that.

AD

I think that that post-internet moment is really important to think about thoroughly. I was at Rhizome for four years dealing with internet art. And before that, just by the chance of age and where I went to school I kind of came into contemporary art through the post-internet moment, but I was a few years younger than the people involved. However, I did a lot of related programming and brought people to campus. So I kind of entered through that doorway, which is a weird doorway to enter through at that stage. And since then, because of work and being in LA and New York, I’ve sort of followed up through the aftermath of that period and become really interested in the question of where all that thinking went.

Anyway, I think there’s this interesting inversion that that email speaks to, where the aesthetic of that moment, the supposed position of the time that seemed to be very clean, about how banal the internet was. Now I think a lot of those people—because everything has become that slick, banal, meme-y, poor image-y—as the world starts to look like you, then suddenly you stop looking like the world. Almost like, okay, like that project is exhausted, or what it was in the first place gets recontextualized. To me, the natural project that follows is connected to Bataille’s “L’Informe.” Even before I had read that particular Bataille text, I tried to empty out my work of signification, of emotion, of identity—kind of trying to find a way outside of the self that was being imposed on me by, you know, the art world, whatever. And then hit a point where it was like, okay, I’ve analyzed this from every angle. I've done everything I can. Now the only answer is to just fill it back up with the muck, the filth, the dirt, and just go all the way in the other direction—or not the other direction, but a third way in-between, you know?

Also, what do we make of the many artists who write that were included in the “L’Informe” show? I love artists’ writings—more so than any critic or theorist, probably. It seems to me that artists’ writings can achieve an evolving language to go with an evolving mutating set of practices in a way that critics and theorists often can't achieve.

I have another tangential issue: I am interested in talking about the Huberman hatred in the book for “L’Informe,” and what his alternate approach to some of this stuff is. When they talk about his approach to the informe, often I’m like, “but that sounds kind of good!” There’s that piece of his I mentioned about the Shroud of Turin. There’s one part where he says, “What we need is a concept of ‘figurative Aufhebung.’ We would have to consider the dichotomy of its field and its meaning and how they deploy a dialectical mimesis as initiation of absolute knowledge. . . an absolute seeing that would transcend the scansion of seeing and knowing, an absolutely reflexive representation. Confronted with its formless stains, interpreters of the shroud imagined such a transformation, which photography would actually accomplish. A phantasm associating Christ’s passion with the medium of photography would hallucinate such a transformation.” This opening of the text is a pretty well-executed example without overly investing in the October brand of “abstraction.” The stain lets you know that a body has been there, but it’s not the body. So therefore, it’s evidence of something having happened and therefore is “truer” than a representation, but also absolutely is not representative or even reflective, or pictorial. It also requires faith or fantasy in a way. I like how he writes about it.

LO-B

That’s so interesting and reminded me that a decade or so after the “L’Informe” show affect theory becomes popular, and, again it’s not geared towards the process of naming. Similar again to Bataille’s informe, it’s not definable, it can’t be pinned down, it’s also “truer” somehow than representation.

BH

The show was in 1996. What could they have inherited? Toni Morrison's Beloved came out in 1987. In terms of bodies, what’s done to bodies, not to mention inheritance and the maternal, such overwhelming thinking was available. Morrison had given it all very specific language—form and informes. These weird divides or baffles, what enters culture, cultural discourse, what doesn't, who avails themselves of it, and who doesn't. So, Bataille now? Not to reduce it in any way to a matter only of this moment, but I am interested in this Bataillean turn and the discourse about being trans right now. The urgency of trans bodies has something to do with the fantasy that Aria was talking about—and would quickly take us back to our discussion of rights, who has the right to certain spaces, like a bathroom, or just space to live? The turn to, the return to, Bataille at this moment could provide a way to reflect upon such bodified rights.

RK

It’s important to note that the idea of baseness is also often understood as a femme and feminine space of materiality. But it only becomes “transgressive” when it’s engaged from a masculine perspective. It’s seen totally differently if it’s taken on from a femme perspective.

AD

It’s a much longer, deeper beef I have with the legacy of psychoanalytic thought in the study of art and in philosophy overall, but I really think Kristeva’s linking of the base and the abject to femininity is a completely and fatally limited way of approaching it. In terms of thinking about what really is the “outside” there are these other multiple interlocking territories beyond the “feminine”—transness, queerness, Blackness, and disability that do a lot more in the spatialization of the abject—how the abject feeds into the sacred and the profane. Femininity, as it’s being constructed in the larger philosophical history requires psychoanalytical binary between man and woman that can’t incorporate that view of Bataille, the abject, and the informe, there are other concepts that are outside of that dialogue, that can do more than femininity can ever fully enact. Even with the Cindy Sherman bit, where they’re analyzing the Sherman photo, it’s a bad analysis, art theoretically, but also in terms of like talking about bulimia and anorexia. That's actually stuff that’s been recuperated into the structure of, or at least representations of femininity, you know, and have even become fetishistic. I just think it’s an important question to ask—I feel the same way about Laura Mulvey and feminist film theory. These lines of thinking are playing with a necessarily narrow scope.

RK

I think psychoanalytic theory is the most annoying, because it is so prevailing, and it’s really hard to escape. Where the transgression lies, or where the radicality is viewed in this logic, tends to be directed towards the cis-white male who is venturing into spaces and idenitites that are othered. How does the “othered” transgress? I believe someone could do a 2021 postcolonial criticism of that particular view. The relationship between the postcolonial world, Blackness in the US, and discourse around trans identity and theory. There’s this feedback loop that’s happening out in the world in and outside of the academy that by mere existence just decimates the Kristevan project but can then recontextualize it to be something that is quite powerful, but it requires a different understanding of what makes something transgressive. As it is now, it’s circling around the idea that a normal body is a white cis male body.

EO

One of the things that I’ve had to grapple with is that a lot of the conversations going on in the architectural canon that haven't been rectified and resolved—I’m thinking about conversations on Bruce Nauman, and for example his work Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square, 1967, which deals with representational and functional aspects of architecture born out of minimalism and gestures at the discrepancies of and around race (the limits of it)—and this is a conversation that has been happening in art for a long time but hasn't jumped the line of the strictures of architecture with a capital A. I agree, Aria, that the scope of analysis is limited but I think that has everything to do with the general lack of imagination. Laura Mulvey's conception of the female gaze was canonized and then the language was filtered down and then appropriated as an aesthetic. For the gaze is the gaze and it’s not about binaries or gendered now in the ways it once was because of the surveillance structure and our relationship to it. I also think language is something that more generally should be challenged in terms of really asking ourselves what we mean when we use the language that we do. What are we trying to communicate?

AD

The fact that we’ve entered into a phase of discourse that expends so much energy trying to categorize and put things in little boxes, even within the space of queer thought, is pretty hard to stomach. As we’ve seen, it’s so hard in terms of the discourse around the rights of trans people, the presentation and representation of trans bodies in this visual, aesthetic world in and in political representation—whatever the obsession and the frustration people have with that is, you know, one of the most telling things I think about, I guess, what that means in terms of language and, and visual languages. It doesn’t ever add up to some sort of categorical picture in a way that seems pretty powerful—and not to be fetishistic about it, but I think it should be given that power.

BH

One thing we could take from Bataille is an invitation to consider how theory sounds, how smartness sounds, how thinking is written. In terms of Emmanuel’s mention of Bruce Nauman: One of the best critical texts about Bruce Nauman is Ralph Lemon's repetition of Wall/Floor Positions (1968). His (re)action is theory, bodified, and it can return us to the informe’s earthworm, spittle, and spider: materialization is theoretical, and certainly rematerialization is, too. Form meeting formlessness might abrade what it means to think through one’s own transness, the body as a site of transformation. The body as a site of pain. The body as a site of beauty. All of these sightings, soundings, going on at once. “Being” separating itself from the regimes that decide or control what is “male” or “female.”

EO

I would also add that the body is a site of production in terms of how we’re constantly producing ourselves as these agents and being re-produced as we’re being experienced and engaged. I’ve been thinking about Aristotle and a lot about materials, specifically, and the varying registers of materiality. When thinking through queerness, transness, and Blackness, the discourse is oversaturated with abstract exercises and expository essays that don’t ground the argument in specificity in terms of naming the oppression that is being experienced—it’s laborious, of course—but I feel like we’ve been nestled and positioned to believe that just using vague language to express these very real things is enough when it isn’t, and we need some sort of recourse. Everything just feels like these kinds of floating particles that you can’t actually pin down.

AD

It goes back to the email from the Contemporary Art Daily people: we have to go back to action and affect. What am I? Who am I? In terms of a tag of how I identify.

EO

Exactly.

AD

In terms of being specific about reference points, Fred Moten, in the Poetics of the Undercommons, talks about Blackness not being something solely inherent to Black people, but as something that exists in the world that people who are marked as Black have been entrusted with the care of, or have a weird intimacy with, and are either burdened with or gifted with carrying it around. I think it’s really useful but may not be easy for varying schools of thoughts to wrap their heads around. Similarly, there’s queer theory, experience, and queer people, which are different things that are in dialogue with each other. But it’s not like only queer people benefit from queer theory. In terms of specificity, another example that sits in that territory is Zach Blas’s work Facial Weaponization Suite that mobilizes a kind of formlessness as an armor or protective layer.

EO

Bruce, I’ve been thinking about what you were saying about the spider, the earthworm, and the spittle and trying to wrap my head about what they all have in common. There is an implicit action that is being described. We’ve lost action. We’re trapped in this enclosure of the performance of language.

BH

It goes back to the very first sentence of the informe text. “A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words, but their tasks.” And the tasks are the action you’re talking about. It’s not a question of rightness. It’s a question of, does this function, does this help me function? And if it doesn't help you function, move on to something else. You don’t need to say that it’s wrong: you just need to move on to the next thing. Another one of the things that such actions engage might be untimeliness. A problem right now is that everything is supposed to be so timely, and it is timely, timed to a fashion cycle of when things are released and when they’re opening. There is very little in culture, in the discourse or response to culture, that pushes back on that. Whatever else might occur from a Bataillean turn, I hope it doesn’t become fashionable, I hope it escapes the marketing system that delivers too much of everything. Why does Bataille pivot, for his last writing project, to Manet, and to Olympia? That’s a really interesting question for someone who was such a radical thinker. A fairly mainstream press publishes this last book, on Manet, part of a series. So much of Bataille’s importance is his willingness to look into the unknown of the future. That is very difficult to do right now, but I also love that for a final maneuver he turns to one of the makers and markers of modernism, of a forming (as well as an informe-ing / de-forming) of modernity at its most complex, with Black and white bodies, human and creaturely being, genders and genres all in contention and contingent, in the painting of that complicated erotic scene.

AD

Lorraine Grady’s text on Olympia was such a crucial text for me, and now I want to go back and read that with the informe in my other hand, because I think there’s something intriguing there. It also reminds me of this Robert Morris performance lecture from the early 2000s on the 500th anniversary of Michelangelo’s David, where he gave a lecture about the history of art and white men. And he’s like, you know, white boys marching around making war, making art, “strutting their stuff.” “Five hundred years of whiteness. White boys calling the tune. Five hundred years of the northern hemisphere stomping the southern hemisphere . . . Five hundred years of no planning, since all the plans were utopian and didn't take into account human nature. . .” And as he’s talking, on the screen, this rendering of David and it slowly turns into a young Black woman standing on the pedestal, and he’s talking about how with time everything changes and it gets a bit weird and shapeless and he goes into this thing about art viruses, forces of change, and infection. The last line is: “And even as we speak perhaps the world’s masterpieces in all the museums are morphing according to the virus of revenge.” There’s obvious resonance with O’Grady, and more recent Black feminist theory here. O’Grady's discussion of the blurring and erasure of Black women, and Denise Ferriera Da Silva’s Black feminist poethics at the end of the world vibes. Narcissistically I’m like, there’s something here to think about—the Black woman’s capacity to live in the formlessness space.

LO-B

We could go on and on and talk next about Morris’s Site from 1960 and how Carolee Schneemann played Olympia in it but this is getting a little long now . . .

BH

There’s no thinking through the modern without thinking about the sex worker, the Black body, and the animal. We're still there.

EO

Spider, earthworm, spittle.

Volume 1

On L’informe

Next from this Volume

16.

Matthew Barney

in conversation with Aria Dean

"At the core, I think of my creative language as being rather formless."