The 1985 exhibition Les Immatériaux – curated by French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard and Thierry Chaput at the Centre Pompidou in Paris – is cast as a pre-1989 event that foresaw the advent of globalisation, as a melancholic anticipation of the changing role of contemporary art in this era of accelerated exchange, and as a moment in a history of exhibitions in the wake of what was called, until recently, aesthetics.
How does one construct the history of exhibitions – forgotten, unwritten, disparate, often lacking in documentation? In what ways might it be a new kind of history, displacing the traditional focus on objects and related critical histories, yet irreducible to the term museum studies? In what ways have exhibitions, more than simple displays and configurations of objects, helped change ideas about art, intersecting at particular junctions with technical innovations, discursive shifts and larger kinds of philosophical investigations, thus forming part of these larger histories? What does it mean to ask such questions in the era of fast-moving celebrity curators, biennials and fairs, digital ways and means, which have taken shape over the last twenty years?
In this context, it is instructive to look back to Paris in 1985, to an exhibition entitled Les Immatériaux, then the largest to date at the Centre Georges Pompidou, conceived as a dramaturgy of information for the post-modern condition by its curator, the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard. Documentation of this exhibition is now hard to come by; and even though I have held onto the catalogues and related materials from the press-kit for the review I wrote at the time, it still seems difficult to bring into focus what I saw then.1 In what follows, I offer some afterthoughts based on my presentation at the Landmark Exhibitions conference at Tate Modern which form a sketch, a history of exhibitions yet to be written, a little fable in which Les Immatériaux figures as a turning-point.2 The aim of this text is to encourage others to look back at the still striking or strange objects and concerns of this exhibition, which was at once intense and disappointing for Lyotard at the time.
No doubt there are many great precursors – artists as well as curators – for the sort of unwritten history of exhibitions I have in mind. In this history, artists and artist-groups matter as much as established institutions; it is often from the former that new ideas arise, and from them that curators draw inspiration. One thinks of Alexander Dorner for example, whom – along with El Lissitzky and Kurt Schwitters – Benjamin Buchloh credits with initiating a shift from objects to spaces (and hence from spectators to participants), a shift later touted as a new idea of art. Dorners laboratory intersected with pragmatism and a world of things in the making, relating ideas of experimentalism in art and in thought, much as Aby Warburgs archival project – which is so appealing to contemporary curators – now resonates with questions about time and image.3
However, Les Immatériaux has the distinction not simply of intersecting with philosophical questions, but actually of being the work of a philosopher, arguably even a work of philosophy, even if it was not recognised as such at the time. We may think of Les Immatériaux as a move from philosophy to exhibition, which formed part of Lyotards ongoing attempt to recast the discipline Kant called aesthetics in a period after the Second World War that had seen the displacement of Dorner and Warburgs archive into English-speaking cultures. Les Immatériaux thus belongs to another history, one that also needs to be written, of the peculiar relations exhibitions have had (and might yet have) with, and in, the great transformations in the discipline of aesthetics – a philosophical discipline that has overdetermined or overshadowed the preoccupations of art history or art criticism since the nineteenth century. An elaborate commentary on the fate of the sublime in the idea of aesthetics or a constant turning back to Theodor Adornos melancholy science, would accompany Lyotard in his work on Les Immatériaux and form part of the larger drama he wanted to stage in his philosophical work. But how, then, did exhibitions (and this exhibition in particular) figure in Lyotards attempt to recast Kantian ideas in 1985, in and for the postmodern moment?
Les Immatériaux has acquired a sort of cult status among younger French artists like Pierre Huyghe or Philippe Parreno. Drawing upon these artists interest, Daniel Birnbaum and Sven-Olof Wallenstein have asked just this question, as to whether Les Immatériaux counts as philosophy or possibly as a way of making philosophy.4 But it was also a question Lyotard asked at the time of Les Immatériaux, impressed as he was by Daniel Burens remark that what large-scale exhibitions like documenta really show is the show itself. The remark would stay with the philosopher: later, in the 1990s, Lyotard would refer to pictures of exhibitions as presentations of ideas, which, in contrast to mere documentations of history, would suppose another idea of archive, related to theatre (or to sound or music), and of the scripts through which they are reproduced.5
Les Immatériaux was a presentation of ideas in the specific sense of presentation and idea which Lyotard was trying to articulate at the time. It thus linked to another striking aspect of Lyotards curatorial experiment – the role and nature of accompanying research, or the role of ideas and their address in the style of philosophical teaching then current in Paris. With Les Immatériaux, the philosophical seminar would enter into the context of museum research, creating new relations which Lyotard would later evoke in his account of the experience. In the open seminar, he would present ideas put forward in a suggestive philosophical text called Time and Matter, later published in a collection of essays entitled The Inhuman.6 The essay makes interesting reading today, in light of the current interest in exhibitions: in it, Lyotard sets out the larger philosophical idea he hoped to present through Les Immatériaux. What becomes clear is that Lyotards title concept of immateriality was different from that of the dematerialisation of art associated with the presentation of ideas in what came to be called conceptual art, and, in particular, institutional critique. The question thus arises of how this idea and this exhibition are related to that earlier conceptual moment in the dramatisation of information, when the whole idea of the exhibition (or presentation) was rethought in a manner often opposed to a certain kind of Kantian aestheticism.
In other words, we might consider Les Immatériaux as part of a possible history of exhibitions, involved with the dramaturgy of information and with the role of time, matter, and technology in this history, which would, in turn, intersect with a larger unfinished philosophical history of different ideas of exhibition – of presentation, showing or appearance – in the history of aesthetics. This history would encompass, for example, ideas formulated in the 1930s, such as Walter Benjamins distinction between exhibition-value and cult-value, the related distinction between vorstellen (to present) and herstellen (to construct) in Heideggers lectures on the origin of the work of art, and, later, Hannah Arendts idea of the public. To pursue this history would be to ask: how does one present ideas? What role does information play in this history, perhaps displacing, as El Lissitzky already saw long before the advent of digitisation, the age-old literary culture of the book? What function do visual art institutions play in this history? How does the rise of so-called conceptual art in the 1960s and 1970s, in particular what Buchloh would later isolate (with a nice paradoxical Adornian touch) as its administrative aesthetic, effect this history? And how was this history taken up again or posed anew in Lyotards philosophical showroom at the Centre Pompidou?
In fact, Les Immatériaux (the plural is crucial) was initiated by the architecture and design department of the Centre, and as such no doubt owes much to the model of the industrial exhibition fair, itself a precursor of todays art fairs, a model already evident in Lissitzkys own sense of exhibition as a new art-form. Lyotard was keen to insist that the aim of Les Immatériaux was not to display objects, but to make visible, even palpable (and so present) a kind of post-industrial techno-scientific condition, at once artistic, critical and curatorial. Far from the informational ideals of communication, Les Immatériaux presented a condition of unease, a sense of disarray, itself given and facilitated by the great aesthetic figure of the labyrinth.
In his own art of presentation, drawing on Dziga Vertov, Lissitzsky would use montage in industrial shows, thereby disrupting a linear perception of history, in what he would call an exhibition kino-show. As Lyotards Time and Matter essay makes plain, the problem of disrupting narrative is itself an aesthetic idea, central to the notion of presentation in cinema, and in particular, to Deleuzes great account of it, published the same year as Les Immatériaux.7 Thus, we can now see that Lyotards exhibition was not unrelated to more recent curatorial efforts to bring artists uses of film back into the light of exhibition as well as of critical history – as in, for example, Philippe-Alain Michauds Images on the Move exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in 2006. Deleuze, of course, had presented post-war European cinema as a great laboratory for new ideas of time and its direct and indirect presentation, seeking in it a picture of research and exchange not simply across the arts, but also with philosophy, ideas which he would later pursue.8
It is this notion of research, and of connections between philosophy and art, that is found in Deleuzes 1985 essay on Mediators (more precisely translated as Interceders), which in turn would lead to the problem of information and control in the history of cinema.9 It is tempting to imagine Lyotard, in a very different way, and in relation to the question of information technologies, as trying to introduce this idea of philosophy interceding in and with the arts into the exhibition context. Les Immatériaux, with its strange ear-phones supplying the visitor with a theory sound-track and its room of computer consoles (absent from prior technology exhibitions such as Kynaston McShines great Information show at MoMA in 1970), thus came at a particular juncture in critical theory and research, art and philosophy. In Lyotards labyrinthine theatre of the new (post-cinematic) condition of information, immateriality was no longer conceived in terms of freeing concepts or ideas from all materials, but, on the contrary, of shifting the idea of materiality away from that of formed matter (including the modernist distinction between form and content) and towards the techno-sciences and the city.
More generally, then, we might imagine Les Immatériaux as an extravagant staging of a peculiar moment in the role of information in the history of aesthetics after so-called modernism, yet before the contemporary configuration of biennials that was already taking shape in the 1990s, within or against which the question of a new history of exhibition now itself arises. One way to see this in-between status of Lyotards exhibition is through his own wry, melancholy writings of the 1990s, which would take up the theme of the postmodern in increasingly anxious terms, often with a light humour encapsulated, for example, in the little postmodern fable of Marie, in a now long-gone moment of Asian Pomo, sipping cocktails at a cultural centre in Tokyo: Marie tells herself, raising her glass along with the centres staff, that deep down those managers are good only if they keep making renovations. Museums, cultural institutions are not only repositories, they are also laboratories. They are truly banks.10
In such semi-biographical fables and other writings from his last decade, we can read Lyotards own responses to a new contemporary configuration, for which 1989 (or the end of the Cold War) might serve as a take-off date. More specifically, in the new contemporary condition of art that was then starting to take shape, we can perhaps identify, in hindsight, two larger questions with which the resulting configuration would become entangled. On the one hand, there is the question of globalisation, in which Europe no longer monopolises history, Paris is no longer the Capital, and Revolution no longer constitutes the political horizon, as it seemed in the nineteenth century when modernism was born and Hegel proclaimed the end of art. Indeed, Europe is a now a new idea among others in the arts, where the grand stories of modernism or the avant-garde – exemplified by Alfred Barrs famous views on the presentation, acquisition and collection of modern art – now seem increasingly ill-adapted to contemporary conditions. At the Centre Pompidou, of course, 1989 was the year of the exhibition Magiciens de la terre, with its non-European representation. But beyond the sociological or statistical question of the representation of non-Western artists or art-forms in exhibitions, there is, on the other hand, a question that was central to Lyotards thinking at the time: the nature of spaces or zones of thinking or ideas, and the role cities play in them – that is, the question of where new ideas come from or the geography or territoriality of thought. Thus borderland Europe comes to play a key role in questions of immigration beyond the centre-periphery or network or even clash of civilisation models of globalisation distinguished by Etienne Balibar, whose own question of a trans-national citizenship takes up the notion of deterritorialisation as a condition of thought, art, the relations with one another, and their particular relations with local conditions.11 But this question of global art ties into the second question, namely, of the role and nature of the contemporary art that corresponds to or is conditioned by this globalisation, that exposes it, disrupts or questions it. More generally, one could argue that Les Immatériaux marked the beginning of a reflection on the question of how the contemporary itself forms part of interactions across borders irreducible to the grand nineteenth-century division of modernity and tradition.
It is of course impossible to analyse here the fairs, biennials, new audiences and collectors involved in todays global contemporary art, which was taking shape at the turn of the 1990s, the sheer volume, geographical and financial scope of which have so dramatically changed the very conditions of making as well as viewing art. But we can see its impact through another crucial question that emerged in art after the 1980s: that of the fate of the modern-contemporary distinction and particularly the role of information and materiality in this distinction. We might see Les Immatériaux in terms of a shift in the way this distinction is drawn or in the very idea of contemporary art.
It has been customary to take the 1960s and 1970s as marking a turning point when, for the first time, contemporary art found itself in contrast or opposition to modernist art. In those years, in particular but not only in New York, the idea of art seemed to free itself from a series of distinctions in which it had been enclosed – production in the studio versus exhibition in the white cube, art versus everyday life, information versus popular culture. Disentangling itself from such divisions, emancipating itself from such institutional forms, contemporary art gained access to a new outside in which visual arts and art institutions, including alternative ones, played a key role, without exact parallels for the modernisms in other fields. But as artist Andrea Fraser still worries that we are the institution and that there is no longer any outside, one can only sense that, all these years after Les Immatériaux, the mainstream/alternative, outside/inside distinctions have lost much of their edge, having themselves become part of official art historical and museographic discourses, a nostalgia even, as if, in the end, they were just another variant of modernism or European art since 1900. The question then arises of the new forms that the contemporary-modern would assume in the 1990s in an increasingly global scope, and the impact they would have on the history of exhibitions. Lyotards writings, and Les Immatériaux in particular, might be read in terms of the passage from one sense to the other of contemporary art, as dramatising a key moment in between the two and the feeling of disarray that accompanied it.
Taking place in Paris a decade after the shift in information and art that accompanied conceptual art, and prefiguring many of the digital technologies that now surround us, Les Immatériaux was, of course, pitched in terms of the debate on the postmodern. At the time Lyotard tried to get rid of the idea, replacing it with a project of re-writing modernity, but to no avail. Even today he is mostly remembered for that idea, which in the meantime has lost any critical edge it once had, giving rise to a literature of lament and despair, of which, indeed, Lyotards own increasing melancholy tone now seems an anticipation. Back in the 1980s, in what he called the Beaubourg effect, Jean Baudrillard had entertained a kind of implosion fantasy about the cultural products endlessly recycled through the pipes of the new Centre Pompidou. But even that would no longer be possible in the perfect crime through which the new contemporary art of the 1990s, with its false conviviality, killed off the very idea of transgressive art: the Beaubourg effect would be superceded by the Bilbao effect.12 Instead of objects endlessly recycled in the exhibition-incinerator of a new pomo Paris, art-objects would travel outside, enriching local cities with dramatic architecture, travelling exhibitions and related intellectual panels, and with arts of convivial participation for younger new audiences. When Rosalind Krauss dubbed the Guggenheim the real pomo or late capitalist museum, she thus pointed to a new picture of art practices, in relation to or against which the idea of contemporary art would have to define itself.13
We can distinguish three models and related research themes in which the question of exhibition intersects with the larger issues in aesthetics, whose Kantian sources of the idea of a sensus communis Lyotard was trying to rethink. First, there is Lyotards increasing interest in Malraux, to whom the philosopher devoted a biography. Indefatigable, Lyotard hoped to recast Malrauxs old question of silences in terms of his own idea of making visible, audible, and thus think-able, what cannot be seen, heard or thought, and to recast the imaginary side of the museum accordingly. Lyotard articulated this question in 1993 as a search for an ontology of the imaginary museum.14 Tinged with a melancholy that drew him back to Adorno, the idea was then often tied up with bearing witness to the unpresentable – for Jacques Rancière, the objectionable feature in Lyotards work and his notion of the sublime. But one might pitch the idea in another way, in light of Douglas Crimps well-known essay on photography, which, drawing on Foucault, set Malrauxs role against the larger question of the intersections of exhibition with forms of knowledge and art.15 In Foucaults Fantasia of the Library, one already finds the great Flaubertian theme, reprised by Crimp, of the stupidity (bêtise) in the Museum and in the Library, and its peculiar relations with ideas and their presentation. Through Malraux, Foucault aimed at the time to extend the break with the encyclopedic dream that haunted Hegels philosophy, to the Museum and Manets relations with it (even though Foucault later destroyed the book he had projected on the topic).16 However, we might see the idea of the bêtise of museological or encyclopaedic knowledge differently, captured in Peggy Guggenheims famous quip: it can be modern, it can be a museum, but not both. Perhaps there is always a museological stupidity, namely, the arrangements and stories through which the Museum reconfigures and presents the objects in its bank, which new or contemporary art is always breaking away from and exposing, through another kind of vital research or laboratory, as with the complex fate of the salon des réfusés. In Lyotard, this outside element, matching the kinds of dissensual events he associated with presenting the unpresentable, was in turn related to a notion of the theatricality of exhibitions: the sense in which they are like scripts to be performed in new ways or altered circumstances – either inside or outside museums and with institutional histories.
We thus find a second theme and related discussion in Lyotards writings from the 1990s. Exhibitions, beyond the reproduction of given forms (stupidities) of knowledge, can be involved in the presentation of ideas as part of laboratories of research, to use Dorners word echoed in Maries remarks in Lyotards fable. Beyond the figure of the labyrinth and the use of dioramas in Les Immatériaux, Lyotard associated the question of such presentation of ideas with the idea of dramaturgy or theatricality. One always dramatises new ideas – as Deleuze already saw in Nietzsche and Wagner – and exhibitions can be one way of doing this; the notion of imaginary which Lyotard was trying to rescue from Malraux, was another. It is perhaps this theatrical or imaginary side of Les Immatériaux – Lyotards interpretation of Burens showing the exhibition – that would appeal to Huyghe and Parreno: the creation of a kind of environment for the enactment of ideas. In the presentation or dramaturgical side of Les Immatériaux, there is also another theme that runs through Lyotards later writings, captured in his idea that the scenography of the exhibition should simulate, in the heart of metropolitan Paris, the new sort of sprawl or con-urban space he had encountered in California, where only the car radio allows the traveller to know when she or he is passing from one city to another. For Lyotard, this shift from nineteenth-century metropolis to the new megapolis raised questions of bigness and generic urban conditions – questions later developed by Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau. The problem of exhibitions and cities, in part under Koolhaass influence, would continue to be explored in the 1990s by, among others, Hou Hanru, with Cities on the Move and, more recently, in opposition to the urban fictions of Beijings spectacular architecture.17 The problem of the fate of Malrauxs imaginary museum in the new global mega-polis was Lyotards way into this problem at the time of Les Immatériaux: As the cultural institution proper to the mega-polis, the museum is a kind of zone. All cultures are suspended there.18
The notion of zone opens onto a third area, indeed a third zone in Lyotards late reflections on exhibitions as key institutions in a new global-urban culture. Cities of course have long been seen as catalysts and laboratories of ideas: in the 1930s this trope can be found, for example, in Georg Simmels essay on the Geist (or mental life), in the diagrammatic childhood memories of Walter Benjamin – first intended for a photo exhibition – and, later, in the psycho-geographies of Situationist dérive (wandering). The sense of a deterritorialised sociability as a condition of democracy was precisely what Deleuze admired in Simmel, the same sense that can be discerned in Fernand Légers painting Men in the City (1919, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York). But in taking up in turn the theme of philosophy as the city thinking for, or in the conditions of, the mega-politan city, Lyotard drew attention to the idea of zones not simply as a matter of graphic design (like in Apollinaires calligramme), but also, as in faubourg or banlieu, as a space for the theatre of poetry declaimed in the streets. Just as Benjamins brilliant piece in One-Way Street brought together Mallarmé, advertising and graphic design, Lyotards zone allowed him to tackle how words entered art and exhibition spaces, and whether literature or writing was to be found in books or in the streets. Before the ubiquity of compendious online catalogues, Lyotard was worried about how such ideas in the con-urban zone would spread around the world as part of massive processes of urbanisation. Where would new exhibitions of ideas in, or in the outskirts zone of, the cultural institution particular to this new global city formation take place? Spiked with the exasperated humour of his late worries about nihilism, Lyotards thoughts on this question – more central than that of including other artists or cultures in a European tradition – anticipated the emergent zones in which art intersects with new ideas, not simply in Paris and New York, but also Berlin and Beijing, São Paolo or Istanbul. The presentation of ideas, the nature of zones for exhibitions in the mega-polis thus becomes a new question, not simply in relation to Malrauxs silences, but also after, or in, its ruins, when the question of contemporary art is asked anew in and through exhibition.
But how, then, should we construct the history of exhibitions? Perhaps such a history is not one thing, governed by a single logic or narrative but, on the contrary, vital precisely because it intersects with many others. This at least is what is suggested in my little contemporary fable of Les Immatériaux: how this exhibition can now be seen as a point of intersection for different histories going off in numerous directions. We might therefore consider 1985 not simply as a date in the field of exhibitions, but also in theory and research, and hence for that presentation of ideas of, and in, art which for two centuries after Kant came to be known as aesthetics. What new forms might this grand philosophical discipline yet assume in the era of global contemporary art? How yet might it interrupt, disturb or intersect with on-going practices or institutions of showing art, and so itself form part of a new unfinished history of exhibition and the new ideas of art associated with it?
- 1. John Rajchman, The Postmodern Museum, Art in America, vol.73, no.10, October 1985, pp.110–17.
- 2. Landmark Exhibitions: Contemporary Art Shows since 1968, conference held at Tate Modern, London, 10–11 October 2008.
- 3. On Dorner see Joan Ockman, The Road Not Taken: Alexander Dorners Way Beyond Art, in R.E. Somol (ed.), Autonomy and Ideology: Positioning an Avant-Garde in America, New York 1997, pp.80–120, 331–6. On Warburg see Georges Didi-Huberman, LImage survivante, Paris 2002. Dorner had envisaged a room for film with László Moholy-Nagy, a theme pursued in the case of Warburg by Phillipe-Alain Michaud in Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion, Cambridge MA 2004.
- 4. The occasion of their posing this question was the Moscow Biennial, as it turns out, just the sort of venue Birnbaum now seems to think is history. See Daniel Birnbaum and Sven-Olof Wallenstein, Thinking Philosophy, Spatially, in Thinking Words: The Moscow Conference on Philosophy, Politics and Art, Berlin 2008. On the end of the biennial as a form of experimentation and innovations, see Birnbaum, The Archeology of Things to Come, in Hans Ulrich Obrist, A Brief History of Curating, Zurich 2008.
- 5. Jean-François Lyotard, A Monument of Possibles, in Postmodern Fables, Minneapolis 1997, pp.164 ff.
- 6. Jean-François Lyotard, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, Minnesota 1991.
- 7. Gilles Deleuze, LImage-temps: Cinéma 2, Paris 1985.
- 8. I look at this aspect of Deleuzes book on film in Deleuzes Time, or How the Cinematic Changes our Idea of Art, in Tanya Leighton (ed.), Art and the Moving Images: A Critical Reader, London 2008.
- 9. Gilles Deleuze, Mediators, in Negotiations 1972–1990, New York 1995. In this essay, we already find a model for Lyotards notion of exhibition as catalyst or laboratory of ideas developed in the 1990s, often in reference to Deleuze. On the other hand, Deleuze thought little of the idea of postmoderism, while Guattari was positively hostile to it, as I tried to explain at the time in a critical inventory of the idea first published in Flash Art (November–December 1987, no.137) and later reprinted in my Philosophical Events: Essays of the 80s, New York 1991, an essay which for me complemented my Art in America review of Les Immatériaux (see note 1).
- 10. Lyotard, Marie Goes to Japan, in Postmodern Fables, 1997, pp.9–10.
- 11. Etienne Balibar, Borderland Europe, in We the People of Europe, Princeton 2003.
- 12. I contrast the two effects – Beaubourg and Bilbao – in my The Bilbao Effect, Cassabella, no.673–4, December 1999–January 2000.
- 13. Rosalind Krauss, The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Museum, October, vol.54, 1990, pp.3–17.
- 14. Lyotard, A Monument of Possibles, Postmodern Fables, 1997.
- 15. Douglas Crimp, On the Museums Ruins, in Hal Foster (ed.), The Anti-Aesthetic, Port Townsend 1983.
- 16. On Foucaults Manet, see Manet and the Object of Painting, forthcoming, London, 2009. Before destroying his book, Foucault returns to Manet (and to the 1983 show Bonjour Monsieur Manet at the Centre Pompidou) in some highly suggestive remarks in his last lectures from 1984; see Le Courage de la vérité, Paris 2009, pp.172–4.
- 17. Cities on the Move was curated by Hanru and Hans Ulrich Obrist for Secession in Vienna in November 1997.
- 18. Lyotard, The Zone, in Postmodern Fables, 1997, p.27.
This paper is a version of a talk presented at the conference Landmark Exhibitions: Contemporary Art Shows Since 1968, a collaboration between Tate Modern and Jan van Eyck Academie with the Royal College of Art and The London Consortium, October 2008. Other papers relating to the conference can be found in issue 12 of Tate Papers.
John Rajchman is Adjunct Professor of Theory and Criticism, Twentieth-Century Art and Philosophy at Columbia University, New York.
Tate Papers Autumn 2009 © John Rajchman
Download the print version.