in Features | 12 APR 05
Featured in
Issue 90

Good Circulation

Artists explore the space between production and consumption: who is addressed and how?

in Features | 12 APR 05

A man and a woman sit at a table, racking their brains and not saying much. Are they Conceptual artists, or curators, trying to come up with the next idea? No; Monica Bonvicini’s video gradually reveals that they work in public relations and have been asked to come up with an advertising campaign for Werbung statt Kunst (Advertising Replaces Art, 2002), the artist’s contribution to the public art project Aussendienst (Fieldwork) in Hamburg. Finally, they make a conscious decision to dumb down, just for the hell of it: they will put portraits of well-known artists with catchy slogans on local buses, promoting art as if it were a household appliance. Yet, they discover, art proves a particularly Hard Sell (2002).

Boris Groys declared that in recent decades artists have become exemplary consumers, rummaging through culture’s bargain basement.1 In much the same vein, and equipped with Michel de Certeau’s assertion that consumption is a potentially subversive ‘tactic’ of selection and combination, Nicolas Bourriaud has observed a fundamental ‘scrambling of boundaries between consumption and production’.2 He argues that artistic practices – for which he has coined the term ‘relational aesthetics’ – establish ‘relations between people and the world, by way of aesthetic objects’,3 ultimately considering ‘inter-human exchange an aesthetic object in and of itself’. ‘The artist models and disseminates disconcerting situations’, Bourriaud continues, and strives ‘to shatter the logic of the spectacle’.4 But in whose name does he or she act? And who gets involved in the ensuing ‘inter-human exchange’? Is the ‘relational’ artist a Modernist hero fighting a lone battle against commercial culture, in ‘relational’ bond with some kind of support group of viewers that cheers him or her on to the front?

‘Inter-human exchange’ suggests direct contact between artist and viewer. One is reminded of the consumer society’s mantra – boosted by the advent of e-commerce – telling people to ‘cut out the middleman’: to establish direct, unmediated trade. But both Groys and Bourriaud, assuming the erasure of the distinction between production and consumption, fail to mention what constitutes the middle term in that classic economic triad: production, circulation and consumption. They consider the relationship between artists and the forms they propose (understood as the embodiments of ideas), and the interactions between people and the world triggered by it, but they seem to ignore the relation between these forms and other forms. The term ‘circulation’ is shorthand for the ways in which the fluctuating relations between forms (from both inside and outside art) co-define the relations between artists and their audience. Of course, any kind of work from any period, unless it exists in a black hole in outer space, can be looked at from this perspective. But the point is that over recent decades artists seem to have become increasingly aware of the issue of circulation not only as a practical social and economic one, external to their actual work, but an aesthetic one, at the core of it.

Originally circulation was a term for the metabolic distribution and redistribution of fluids and matter, implying qualitative and quantitative transformation via movement. As a metaphor, it has been historically linked to urbanization, the flow of populace and traffic in the city. From about 1750 money begins to circulate – the likes of the Baron de Montesquieu and Jean-Jacques Rousseau use the term in connection with currency and labour; after the French Revolution newspapers, ideas and gossip circulate; after 1880 so do traffic, air and power.5 For Karl Marx circulation is the sphere of supply and demand, where distribution organizes the exchange of goods and money: in other words, the market. The kind of circulation Vladimir Ilyich Lenin had in mind when, with his 1902 pamphlet, he confidently asked What is to be Done? was one that involved newspapers and party apparatuses, in order to spread the word and organize the working class. This emphatic, forward-leaning, one-way will to circulation was perhaps most vividly embodied in the spiral structure of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1919). But in a tragic-ironic way, thanks to Lenin’s brusque rejection of their ideas, the Constructivists were spared the fate of aesthetisizing the later totalitarian regime.

Today the question ‘what is to be done?’ can sound almost idiotic, while a return to the idea of ‘spreading the message’ seems preposterous. Perhaps the contemporary offspring of ‘what is to be done?’ is a healthily doubtful ‘what, for whom, and how?’ Yet the question is not an innocent one: it goes against culture’s supposed exceptional status outside the market economy, and it could come straight from the mouth of a marketing executive, scouting future target groups. But, as Maurizio Lazzarato has pointed out, the insistence on ‘cultural exception’ ironically weakens the potential of culture to resist its subordination to economic imperatives.

Cultural knowledge is not a form of merchandise like any other, although the market consistently tries to reduce it to fiscal and product exchange. However, the values co-regulating the immaterial production of this knowledge – aesthetic potential and political gravity – both charm and disrupt the economy’s thirst for inventiveness. Lazzarato’s conclusion is that the strategy of cultural exception must be ‘turned on its head’ – culture’s ethics must be not exempted from, but applied to, economics.6 The downside is obvious: the ethics of culture applied to economy are not inevitably beneficial – idealism in one sphere can be exploitation in another. But for better or worse, in order to move beyond the trench warfare between, on the one hand, the autonomy of art and, on the other, its fusion with the entertainment industry, the question of how, and to whom, aesthetic and intellectual knowledge circulates becomes central.

Hans Haacke’s work marks the shift of ‘circulation’ from physical phenomenon to economic metaphor: from water in transparent cubes (Condensation Cube, 1963–5) and tubes (Circulation, 1969) to the provenance – ‘the history of circulation’– of a painting in relation to ‘de-Nazified’ patrons of the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne (Manet-Projekt’74, 1974). The latter work was a frontal attack on the shielding of economic and historic relations within an art institution and resulted in the cancellation of its display. In order to circulate the revealing information Haacke used Conceptual means of display rather than, say, documentary film or newspaper reportage – ironically resulting in the work’s dissemination anywhere but on the gallery walls for which it had been intended.

Robert Barry’s Invitation Piece (1972–3) constructs the distribution of information as literally circular. First an invitation was sent from the Paul Maenz Gallery in Cologne to an exhibition at Art & Public in Amsterdam; there another invitation card in turn advised the recipient to go to London, and so forth until Toronto sent avid Barry viewers back to Cologne. The referential merry-go-round dissolved art into the means of its own mediation. Barry’s piece resides as much in the invitation cards themselves as in the attempts to visit any of the named destinations, where nothing was to be found but a semiotic loophole. Accordingly, circulation designates not simply the A-to-B distribution of objects and ideas but also the way these gain a life of their own as they pass from hand to hand, house to house, mouth to mouth – including the possibility of alterations and the dangers of exploitation. It’s like deliberately turning hard fact into rumour, for the sake of allowing the unforeseen to happen.

In Gianni Motti’s 2004 ‘retrospective’ at the Migros Museum, Zurich, his work was not actually present but was recounted in the form of stories. Tour guides wore T-shirts with the slogan Plausible Deniability (2004), the title of the exhibition and a biting hint at the fact that everything they said – about Motti staging his own funeral, or infiltrating a UN session as a fake Indonesian delegate – could plausibly be denied. Of course, this circulation of anecdotes and tales functions only as long as the artist simultaneously withholds the circulation of ‘proper’ documentation (a key element also in Tino Sehgal’s actions during exhibitions).

Withholding one line of circulation while using another seems a common dialectical method. Katya Sander’s Monument for Image Production and Image Consumption (2004) testifies to this in regard to the mass media. Asked to propose a contemporary monument in Copenhagen, she produced a piece in collaboration with the second-largest national daily newspaper, Politiken. One day last summer a second version of the paper, purged of everything but the pictures and the front-page logo, was given away free with any purchase of the original, with no prior announcement or explanation. The piece can be read as a pious lesson about the mindless production and consumption of images, but it’s first and foremost a monument to their fleeting, extensive circulation.

On 11 September 2002 – her birthday – New-York-based Aleksandra Mir published a tabloid newspaper, Daily News. She had asked more than 100 friends to contribute a piece of their choice, from crossword puzzles to political manifestos and recipes. The project reclaimed Mir’s date of birth (the banner headline screamed ‘Happy Birthday!’); moreover, at a time when it had become ‘unpatriotic’ to dissent, it celebrated freedom of speech in the sense of circulating every response. The fact that the paper appeared as a free, one-off edition of 1,000 copies reflected the fact that this vision of free circulation was Utopian, a daydream come true at grassroots level.

Jens Haaning plastered his poster Arabic Joke (2002) across city centres including Aarhus in Denmark, Houston in the US, and Geneva in Switzerland. White Arabic letters against a strident combination of red and green created the impression for those who can’t read Arabic that it must be Islamic propaganda – in fact, it tells a joke about a man who thinks he’s a grain of wheat. With a light comic touch the piece brings out the xenophobia latent even among the well-meaning. For his contribution to the exhibition ‘Publicness’ in London, Haaning transported all the chairs from the ICA’s café to a street in Karachi, where they could be taken away for free by passers-by (Redistribution London–Karachi, 2003). It’s easy to get lost in cloudy references to globalization and cultural exchange, but what’s really interesting is the concrete when and where of this piece: since Karachi is where journalist Daniel Pearl was murdered and where many Al-Qaeda terrorists have been captured, for many in the West the city has become virtually synonymous with fear. Without directly referring to it, Haaning eloquently plays on this fear, yet counters it by practically turning a ‘theft’ into a ‘gift’.

A video piece by Bulgarian artist Nedko Solakov reflects the desperate, and cruelly comic, economic aspects of so-called cultural exchange. Invited to make a project in Denmark, Solakov changed a 1,000-Krone note into dollars, then converted the dollars back into Krone and so on, until the money was eaten up in exchange rates and commission (The Deal, 2002). In Eastern Europe large parts of the population, not least intellectuals and artists, are forced to earn their living by travelling every weekend by bus and train to sell stuff out of suitcases at markets in faraway towns; often they have to bribe customs officers and Mafia types along the way. This ‘suitcase economy’ marks the shift from socialism to neo-plutocratic capitalism.

Like Solakov, Matthieu Laurette discovered a strategy for confusing the principle of value, this time for a family game show. From an art project budget in Bilbao, Laurette devised a programme for Basque TV, El Gran Truque (The Great Exchange, 2000): the idea was that in a kind of phone-in auction people could offer objects n exchange for a car offered by Laurette – the highest offer would be accepted, and then in turn be presented the following week for another exchange, and so on. After a few months the series of swaps finished with the presentation of six blue glasses. The economy’s demand for growth had been turned on its head: what started with a car worth a small fortune ended with something you might find at a car boot sale. This strategy of turning rules of circulation against themselves also informs Laurette’s Citizenship Project (1998– ongoing), in which he investigates the requirements for obtaining passports of countries all over the world, and then makes this information available on a website. The experiment ultimately is a way to test the limits of the ideological foundations on which the laws governing access to citizenship are based.

Issues of access and nationality were also brought into play in Santiago Sierra’s closing of the Spanish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2003, when only holders of a Spanish passport were allowed to enter the pavilion through a back door (Wall Enclosing a Space, 2003). As rigorous as the gesture was, it distorted the political realities it so boldly seemed to refer to: while there is no situation in which only owners of a Spanish passport would be allowed into the country, people really are drowning in the straits of Gibraltar as they try desperately to enter the territory of the European Union. One might expect ‘referential precision’ from Sierra, as passports and visa regulations not least relate to people’s value as labourers – a value central to his concern. His usual strategy is to divert, for the duration of a piece, people who are desperate enough to do anything for money (uneducated workers, illegal immigrants, junkies, prostitutes) into the ‘white cube’: he ‘stains’ it with the concrete reality of obscene exploitation, while consciously taking advantage of it. He seems adamant about the issue of payment: it should not be substantially more (but could in fact be less) than usual. In 1999 Sierra had an employment agency hire 465 male mestizo (mixed-race) workers to stand in the gallery space – a number calculated to create a density of five people per square metre – for three hours during an opening at a museum in Mexico City (465 Paid People, 1999). The official description of the piece on the artist’s website mentions that apparently the agency actually might not have paid anyone, but asked friends and a battalion of soldiers to attend for free.

The ‘redistribution’ of people into the white cube freeze-frames one of the characteristic effects of market circulation: while making objects appear almost like living beings, it also turns living beings into objects. Luis Camnitzer has pointed out that Sierra’s idea of involving low-paid workers has a historical precedent in Argentinian artist Oscar Bony’s La Familia Obrera (The Proletarian Family, 1968)7: to exhibit a son, mother and father on a pedestal in a gallery, Bony paid the latter exactly twice his hourly rate as a die-cutter. The payment was conceptually ethical: the worker’s family was commodified, as anyone who enters the labour market is to some extent, but as the family were ‘doubled’ in the act of being exhibited, so was the payment. By contrast, Sierra prefers to double the exploitation.
Some may see Sierra’s work as staring unflinchingly into the abyss of art: as if he was forcing the privileged to endure the sheer presence of the fierce exploitation from which they ultimately benefit. But if that is the case, he lets his audience off very lightly – he makes not the slightest effort to point out, or to incorporate into his work, the concrete reasons for people’s exploitation. He makes poverty look like a dark, brooding, mysterious fate, as inescapable as waste. This could not have been made more literal than in his recent project at the Kestnergesellschaft in Hanover. Sierra’s Haus im Schlamm (House in the Mud, 2005) was to fill the ground floor of the building with mud from the nearby Maschsee, an artificial lake created between 1934 and 1936 by thousands of workers employed by the Nazis for just a few pence per hour. The press release cited Walter De Maria’s ‘Earth Rooms’ (1968–77) by way of art-historical credentials. But compared to the silent presence of the latter, Sierra’s instalment was a thunderous theatrical event. The mud was shaped into canyons, and shovels and a wheelbarrow were stuck in it, as if the workers employed by the Nazis had just popped out for a cigarette. Visitors were allowed to enter and spread their muddy footprints on the beige carpeting on the first floor, especially laid out for the occasion.

What was Sierra’s point? If it was a purely aesthetic one, it did indeed create an impressive vista – you don’t often see the white cube so literally swamped. But reference-wise, Sierra couldn’t have been more wrong. The Kestnergesellschaft was closed by the Nazis in 1936: until shortly before that time its Jewish director, Justus Bier, had shown works by artists who a year later were stigmatized in the Nazis’ ‘Entartete Kunst’ (Degenerate Art) exhibition. Sierra’s redistribution of the mud once moved by cheap labour and Nazi propaganda felt not like a gesture of respect to Bier and his legacy, but like a drunken insult thrown at it. (It is ironically appropriate that because of bacteriological risks, mud from the Maschsee could not actually be used and had to be replaced with gunk from another lake.)

When it comes to the delicate subject of the ‘circulation’ of people in terms of their labour value the most important point is whether the artist remains aloof or prefers to put him or herself on the same level as those who are his or her ‘material’. There is no doubt about what kind of rift opens up in this respect between Sierra’s display of poverty (and Vanessa Beecroft’s display of luxury, for that matter) on the one hand, and the practices of artists such as Laurette, Mir or Haaning on the other. While the former appear as superior manipulators in the background, concerned chiefly with formal shock and awe rather than conceptual consistency, the latter mingle with their subjects as if incessantly reminding themselves, in a humble, can’t-help-it way, of the crucial question: what’s for whom, and how?

Classic Modernism was dominated by a notion of production that focused attention on artistic authorship (corresponding to the rise of mass industrial production); Postmodernism described the artist as an eclectic bricoleur (corresponding in turn to the rise of consumer society); currently we find ourselves in a period of capitalism where the key factor shaping both economics and culture is circulation. These are shifts not of substance but of accent; of course, production and consumption haven’t vanished. But the decisive question is what regulates the distribution, the patents, the what for whom (from the availability of AIDS medication to online copyrights). The Internet and air travel are technological ciphers for the beautiful illusion that everything is accessible to anyone, anytime, anywhere – while we all know only too well that this is not true.

In Bonvicini’s video we finally see the outcome of the PR people’s struggle to isolate the key product message of art. As a provincial brass band plays to celebrate the inauguration, buses drive off with the larger-than-life ads emblazoned on them: one of the slogans reads ‘Kunst schmeckt’ (‘Art tastes good’) and features a smiling Rirkrit Tiravanija holding up a chocolate Easter bunny.

1 Boris Groys, ‘Der Künstler als Konsument’ (‘The Artist as Consumer’), in Max Hollein and Christoph Grunenberg (ed.), Shopping, Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, pp. 55–60
2 Nicolas Bourriaud, Postproduction, Lukas & Sternberg, New York, 2002, p. 13
3 Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Les Presses du Réel, Paris, 2002, p. 42
4 Bourriaud, Postproduction, p. 26ff.
5 Erik Swyngedouw, ‘Circulations and Metabolisms: (Hybrid) Natures and (Cyborg) Cities’,
6 Maurizio Lazzarato, ‘European Cultural Tradition and the New Forms of Production and Circulation of Knowledge’, 1998,
7 Luis Camnitzer, ‘Art & Economy, Hamburg’ (review), ArtNexus, no. 45 (July 2002),