As part of the “Political Dimensions of Cultural Work and Knowledge Production” series, we publish a conversation between Justin Lieberman, an artist and teacher living in Munich, and the cooperative Portal (Johanna Klingler and Amir Saifullin, the co-editors of this series). They spoke about the potential of artistic practice beyond visual production as well as about Justin’s practice and experience as an artist and teacher.
Read more about the series — https://syg.ma/@sygma/political-dimensions-of-cultural-praxis-and-knowledge-production
Текст на русском можно найти по ссылке — https://syg.ma/@sygma/my-dolzhny-protivostoiat-prizyvam-sdielat-nashie-iskusstvo-sootvietstvuiushchim-ikh-intieriesam
Portal: To those who are not familiar with your art, could you quickly describe your own practice? Where it comes from and what are the pressing issues that excite you and are important to you?
Justin Lieberman: I am interested in a certain dialectic which tarries between the infinitely nested complexity of machines in the novels of Raymond Roussel and the purification of Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic matheme. To put it a different way, I would like to make things that, when seen from one perspective, are metaphor machines of ever-increasing complexity, but seen from another, are symbols which are so empty they signify absolutely nothing. I think it’s better for others to assess whatever internal consistencies or external relevance there is.
The diptych presented here is from a set of collages made from comic books I call Gutter Constructions, as a gutter refers to the negative space which divides up the panels in comic books. The material for the initial Gutter Constructions was sourced from pages of a comic book featuring Steve Ditko’s character The Question, a right wing libertarian vigilante inspired by his creator’s deep devotion to Ayn Rand’s “objectivist” philosophy. I used the gutters to construct dense patterns and forms, squeezing what remains of the images into smaller and smaller containers.
I took the titles Nicht Versöhnt (the work can be seen above) and Generic Procedure (the collage can be seen below) from a film by Straub-Huillet and a mathematic/ontological category employed by Alain Badiou. The diptych is a representation of the narrative aspects of two different political processes. Nicht Versöhnt, like its namesake, the film, maps out a parliamentary democracy, with its tendency towards fascism and the destruction of time and narrative cohesion. In Generic Procedure, I tried to diagram a violent insurrection, which recursively builds a dialectic of its own history and the conditions in which it occurs. The insurrection generates and is guided by its subjects, which are here represented by a staggered transcription of Dionne Warwick’s song “The Windows of The World.” I imagined something like a chorus. For Badiou, a “generic procedure” is one which is the same for everybody, and which simultaneously forges subjects in their particularity. I’m tempted to say I could have chosen some other song, because the form of having the panels speak each other into existence was the invention in the piece, but it’s not true. Somehow, it needed to be this song, written by Bacharach and performed by Warwick.
P: These works contain many important layers, starting with the collage/comic as an agit-prop tool, and the narration which might get its subversive potential from its epistemological relations. I thought about Vertov’s method of factography. Approaching your artworks from the political history of agit-prop, I would be very much interested in the overlapping of methods and in the way the perception of the visual material might or might not shift in each case. What do you think about it? Maybe you do not even make this distinction, it might be my own frustration with the art world to always make this distinction…
JL: So if I understand you correctly, there are a two questions here, which could each be asked generally, and in relation to my collages. How does the perception of the visual material differ in the cases of art and propaganda? And what is the relation of art to propaganda?
Then there is the reference to Vertov. I am very sympathetic to Vertov’s factography, more so than I am to Burroughs’ media critique. The reason is simply that Vertov begins his process with the things themselves, rather than their representations. Factography is opposed to signification as mimetic reflection, it is signification as productive labor. Burroughs’ cut-up method begins with representation (media, culture), and then proceeds into a kind of mise-en-abyme, precisely through reflection. To make a kind of superimposition of the categories after the fact, I could say that Nicht Versöohnt uses Burroughs’ method, and Generic Procedure uses Vertov’s.
For me, the cut-up is very straightforward. The comics are cut-up and rearranged in a chaotic way. The persuasive or trance-like state of readerly absorption (the communicative quality of the language) is shattered apart. The cut-up method is purported to arrive at the truth that way, but it’s really only the truth of what is being cut up. And it won’t work on everything. What would be the point of cutting up the stories of Beckett, for example? Or the poetry of Mallarmé? The cut-up method doesn’t produce poetry. That has always been a specious claim. Poetry makes language say what it cannot say. After the poem is written, language can say more than it was previously capable of. The cut-up method does not make this gift to language. It is itself the product of the social fragmentation which capital imposes. It can produce a reflection, but that’s as much as it can do. This is why I call it a critique. But it’s also why it’s perfectly suited to speak about parliamentary democracy, which is the subject of Nicht Versöhnt.
In Generic Procedure, the process that I was trying to illustrate is a political process which proceeds by subtracting itself from every representation. Today one can’t depict “the masses,” or “the people.” You can’t even depict the class, its composition is too heterogeneous. But you can speculate about a process. The subtraction I am talking about is not the process by which the work is made, except at the very beginning possibly, where the materials are established. It is also not a conflation of political representation with pictorial representation. Generic Procedure is more like a diagram than a demonstration or an enactment, neither of which I think are really possible in an artwork. It’s a speculative mapping. Signification as productive labor. You can follow the words of song from panel to panel, the tails of the word bubbles, which reach backwards and forwards into the following and preceding panels. The human hands do the same. It’s not representational but it has some coherence and stability, it can be read, and the scanning of the image with your eyes opens the door to a way of thinking it. It contains a several sequences that build on and borrow from each other.
To address your question regarding the overlapping of propaganda and art, my friend Aaron Gemmill and I have had a lot of conversations about the relation of art to propaganda. One maxim he developed was: “The degree to which art is propaganda is proportional to the work’s orientation towards its own instrumentalisation, including its sale.”
P: Сould you elaborate a bit on that?
JL: Just as all propaganda has to be designed, or written, and therefore has some degree of aesthetic attention put into it, art is always, to some degree, made for some purpose, it contains some utility. Selling art is a form of propaganda for a social arrangement which facilitates that sale. It’s not the definition of art that causes trouble. We are quite comfortable expanding it to include extraordinary invention in any marketplace. It’s the definition of propaganda which is so often confined, in order that those marketplaces aren’t called into question.
There is another maxim which I appreciate, but I can’t remember the source, maybe one of the situationists, which says something like: “All art is composed entirely of social labor, some parts of which are mistakenly called ideas.” I think that that this one does a good job of synthesizing two earlier ones from Benjamin and Brecht. The latter says: “Art is not a mirror of reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” The quote from the former is: “There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” For me, it is a mirror AND a hammer, and both in every case. Benjamin’s “document” sounds objective, but of course we would have to know how to read it. And this “knowing how” means understanding what the subjects of artistic work are.
Maybe I’ve wandered off track here. I guess in the studio, I don’t really make too much distinction between my collages, hermetic as they might seem, and something like this banner (can be seen below), made in collaboration with the Munich Lesegruppe for the women’s march. They’re both utilitarian in their way, are they not? But when they go outside, they are oriented quite differently.
P: Can you, with all this in mind, reflect back to your production of the collages or your work in general and explain how they are related to Benjamin’s mirror and Brecht’s hammer? It seems that the collages around The Question and Ayn Rand might be a re-appropriation of Soviet methods, in terms of narrative (as collage was initially the left method of portraying the objective, example is Fotomontage) and/or subjectivity (Fotoplastik developed by Moholy-Nagy). Linking them might produce consciousness about life that is inaccessible to the eye — class structures, for example — or in the case of Fotoplastik directly produce effects on one’s consciousness. According to Moholy-Nagy, “Fotoplastik requires brain plastic.”
Soon after the conception of this method it was appropriated by the right — the historical Nazis in Germany and fascists in Italy. And also, as it is clear from the comics, by the neoliberal ideologies of Ayn Rand. So when you are choosing this ideologically right-wing comics (which are, in their way, already collages), cut them in pieces and create a new setting out of them, a new reality, are you doing something else than hammering and mirroring? To me you are working subversively, staying within the medium, within the representation, reflecting on the method of collage but also trying to repurpose it.
JL: Let me try to unpack some of this. For me, all the problems around appropriation exist in Nicht Versöhnt. It’s just a cracked mirror, possibly it could be subversive, I’m not sure. I’m pessimistic about subversion in art. So I would agree, it is limited to hammering and mirroring. But I hope that in Generic Procedure, there is something more opaque, something way out of all the hammering and mirroring. Photomontage in its soviet variations was not reflective, to my mind. It was, like cubism, a way of looking at things from multiple perspectives within a single image. For Soviet photomontage these were social perspectives, rather than individual ones. The Italian fascist appropriation, and the Stalinist derivatives for that matter, gave up this ambition of photomontage, and returned to earlier modes of depiction of workers, the masses, industrialization, etc. That’s my understanding of the situation. Photomontage gave up its opacity. Certainly, in the initial invention, there were some ideas about the “consciousness-raising” effect the works might have, but it is precisely this focus on effect that became much more consolidated and pronounced in the appropriations and derivations. They oriented themselves further towards a lodestone of their own instrumentalization. As my friend Chris Reitz noted, the movement from one to the other is a transition from a demand for subjective involvement to overwhelming subjection. What’s the big question here, though? I think it is a question of a contemporary shape of the conjunction of art and politics. What can it be? What new shapes can we come up with? What life remains in the older ones, and which ones?
P: What you say makes sense — I guess “utilitarianism” is an important keyword. Although personally I often feel like art in a closed art context sometimes does not reach the level, in which its content really gets noticed.
JL: I would say it’s true that our audience is small, if we think of “art” as something that is produced by professional or aspiring professional artists, whose ambition really is to remain inside this context, which includes museums, galleries, art magazines, and art schools. But if we think of art as an exception to culture, something which subtracts itself from culture, then we can broaden our definition of art, and see that the closure of any given context is merely relative. Anonymously produced memes, videos on youtube, public actions, songs, video games, and films do reach a very wide audience, without ever entering the small world of officially sanctioned art. However, for me, the size of audience is really beside the point, because art does not need a stadium-sized audience to be good, or even “vanguard.” What art is seeking is not a devoted audience of followers, but rigorous practitioners, working at a distance within the state. It needs Faithful Subjects. These reveal themselves in movements more so than individual works.
P: I feel like in a lot of open calls or thematic shows, artists are invited to check certain politically important keywords, so we don’t have to look at what they are saying. Somehow I feel that a lot of support mechanisms take away most of art radical potential although they should be supporting it… Again, frustration, sorry. But I think the example with the banner is a good one, because obviously we as artists or theorists, or critics, or radicals do not have to limit ourselves to only one exclusive sphere of action to create a profile or something.
JL: I think the keyword phenomenon you are talking about is a contemporary method of reification of artistic novelty. After all, a search by keyword does not yield much information about production, distribution, or circulation. Those are where the politics of most work are located, not in “topics” or institutional proclamations of virtue. With keywords, everything is a topic, or a base material. At best, it’s a motif. We should refuse these calls to make our art “relevant” to their interests.
You are right about the way the institutions strive to limit our work to a certain sphere. We need to oppose this form of specialization, particularly the division between manual and intellectual labor. And today — the division between production and distribution.
P: I personally think pedagogy is also very important as well as art mediation and I think there is also potential in radio podcasts, TV, etc. Although somehow only Zizek seems to appear in public media.
JL: I also agree that teaching can be very worthwhile. For my own part though, I have felt less and less qualified to do it, for a lot of reasons. I ask myself the question: сan I help these students to get a job? To make some kind of a living? Can I offer them connections they can pursue? I just don’t know. I worry about students here. Some people would draw a clear line between the career paths of American art students, whose only real choice is to find a gallery to sell their work (most of them don’t), and the German art students, who apply for all these different state funding initiatives (which only a few receive). To me it’s about the same, as you pointed out.
P: Sometimes it feels like open calls, scholarships, project funding, etc. — as helpful as it is to have such things in Germany — also stop people from following their paths, because the money is never enough for self-employed people to live and work self-sufficiently rather from on a project-to-project basis. And out of this dependence everybody is trying to do things right in view of the next open call or in relation to the application requirements, which of course consumes a lot of time as well. In a way, this supports, produces a status quo, sometimes even worse — competition, individualisation or affirmation of political subject matter. Of course though, many great initiatives, artist groups, collectives, spaces, projects, etc. do exist. Often these things have evolved over quite a long period of time, so I am probably speaking more about a general feeling or a dynamics I often encounter. We also have to keep in mind that, at least in Germany, the number of institutionally educated artists has increased a lot… I have to stop being negative all the time, I am sorry!
Though I have to correct myself — what I just said about the funding wasn’t meant to sound that spoilt! Although many artists in Germany struggle and have side jobs, they can be very glad (at least the lucky ones, of course there is also a lot of bias, discrimination, nepotism) about the general possibilities for funding, especially in comparison to poorer countries. Nevertheless, it produces pressure and often competitive dynamics bound to trends and hierarchies set by institutions and figures in power and thus often destroys original potential. Of course people want to believe in the promises like “you can have a career and a stable life someday (if you play along).” And before you know it, a decade is over, and you haven’t brought your sheep into the dry in order to be able to “do the right thing” afterwards.
JL: State funding of art in Germany leads to a lot of homogenous call-and-response dynamics in terms of what gets made, rather than being guided by processes internal to the work. I remember some years ago Andrea Fraser wrote this essay talking about art as a class of assets (in the US) and how the European (i.e. German) model was so much better, but to me they are the same. Germany is a big capitalist state. State funding of art is no better than a big (or a small) commercial art market. Artists and critics who laud German state funding of art and mock the production of “State Artists” in the old socialist regimes have not really thought this through very well. Part of what creates the conditions for good art to appear is its ability (or its circumstance) to maintain as much distance as possible from the State.
The production of more and more artists with no access to grants, commodification, or even a wage will continue to have us all working for less and less, since this massive group of uncompensated artists us leveraged against every bit of compensation given. It’s the origin of feeling spoiled and being shit on at the same time. Isn’t this how parents force their children to eat food they hate? Every museum, gallery, magazine, and school operates according to this logic. The real squeeze on the German artists who have disregarded this will come soon, when art is no longer a priority for state funding. It’s already the case that art education is increasingly drawn into a more capitalist mode through its interface with the US and the UK systems. In the face of all that, I don’t find negativity problematic at all. I hope these systems are all burned to the ground.
Just to say again: I do not think you sound spoiled. Competition for state funding of art in Germany has a deadening effect on art, just as competition in the US art market produces a lot of horrible trash. They both do so by setting all the artists against one another in a pit and throwing them little scraps to fight over. You don’t have to be grateful to the state for the money you get to fund a project.
P: As a closing question, maybe we could now come back to the initial urge of our publication series, which wants to investigate different takes on how artistic and cultural production can create scopes of action for political aims and how we can bring theory (art) and praxis together. We have talked about different important aspects, but do you have some closing thoughts/reflections on your experience. “What is to be done?” How can we continue in this settings we are working in? Or how are you doing it? Can we still believe in art? What are our tools, etc.?
JL: I believe we need to think carefully about what art is if we are going to affirm it categorically. And I know that this thinking is not really done, so I am very hesitant to say that I believe in art. There is a lot of junk which is commonly referred to as art and there also exist great works of art which are seen as “something else, not art really.” We can’t simply accept these definitions which are handed to us. For my purposes, I choose to set art in opposition to culture, or cultural production. This means that I am not required to be responsive, or democratic in my art. To be clear, I think most officially sanctioned art belongs in the latter category. It’s merely culture, the culture of the art world. I won’t try to rescue the category of art for those settings. I would never seek to recoup art’s autonomy for those who believe its natural form is that of a commodity produced by a romantic artist-subject. Adding a lot of bumper stickers doesn’t change the make of the car. As I said before, I believe an essential task for artists today is to invent a new shape for the conjunction of art and politics. We can’t assume that this new shape is going to wear its heart on its sleeve, as either art or politics. It will likely be difficult to see. It will be the movement, not the artists, or any existing organizations, that will provide the context for and make an account of the art of our time.