Autonomy and Abstraction in Print, Finally

Speaking of delays: in an age of social media and hot takes, the printed book is a deliriously slow medium. I don’t think I’ve ever been involved with publishing projects so seemingly endless as the forthcoming (no, really!) Art and Autonomy reader and Objections, the first volume of my Forms of Abstraction project. Both Art and Autonomy and Objections have been printed, and should be making their way to a bookseller near you right about now. They’re both affordably priced, so you have no excuse.

It was thanks to the tireless editorial efforts of Louis Hartnoll, and backing from departing Afterall honcho Charles Esche, that the reader became a reality after all. At Sternberg, it was Zoë Harris who really took charge of the editorial side. Both Louis and Zoë have the kind of patient precision that are indispensable in these kinds of project, and they go many an extra mile while knowing that their names won’t be on the cover—even though they deserve to be, as far as I’m concerned! For Objections, I was lucky enough to have Rogier Delfos take care of the design, and it looks as though I will finally be content with the visual and material realization of one of my books.

Given that the manuscript of Art and Autonomy was submitted in 2014, and the concept for Objections (drawing in part on older work) began to congeal not long after, I’m rather curious if and how these books will register in our ever-new normal. This may be an anachronistic quality of this medium: too slow to be up to date, the book can potentially become a theoretical intervention in the prison of the present.

Documenta Delay

I’m getting questions whether I will review documenta. Frankly, at the moment I don’t know which medium would be a hospitable and productive context for such a review, but this summer I’ve been finalizing a long-gestating article on “Organizational Aesthetics,” updating its last section with thoughts on documenta fifteen. Since it will be published in a venerable academic journal, and since academic journals are at the other end of the spectrum of speed, this text will see the light of day sometime next year. In a culture of accelerating instant (and insta) comments and opinions, there’s something to be said for being out of sync and slowing downthough ideally not quite as much as in the case of those two books of mine that are finally about to be released. One of those albatrosses I’ve dragged around for ten years…

Image: nonkrong at documenta fifteen with members of Arts Collaboratory/ Cooperativa Cráter Invertido

From Farce to Tragedy

Ruangrupa’s documenta has done German’s culture warriors the favour of becoming the perfect enemy through its mind-boggling, bumbling obliviousness, i.e. its blindness to antisemitic tropes in a mural by the collective Taring Padi. The half-hearted excuses don’t help. This is a betrayal all who have been trying to move the conversation about Germany’s instrumentalized and weaponized Erinnerungskultur forward (or to start such a conversation under near-impossible conditions).

The tragedy here is that the affair plays precisely into a well-established Culture Wars playbook, and it makes it more difficult than ever to get out of a carefully designed and maintained vicious circle. In the process, it obscures a number of simple points that hardly amount to rocket science.

Noch mal zum mitschreiben:

-The antisemitic, fetishistic concretization of capitalism and imperialism in the figure of The Jew is anathema to any and all forms of emancipatory politics and culture.

-Solidarity with Palestinians and the rejection of Israeli settler colonialism must be grounded in a refusal to buy into the equation of Israel with The Jews, and the Israeli state’s self-image as the only legitimate home of Jews.

-Antisemitism can and must be analysed within the overarching framework of modern racial and colonial necropolics without denying its specific history and distinctive features, or its continuing virulence. Context doesn’t erase specificity; it brings it to the fore.

-BDS is not intrinsically antisemitic. There are legitimate reasons for supporting the campaign; reasons that one may find problematic, but that can be debated—or could be debated, if German political demagogy did not make this all but impossible. Then there are other reasons for supporting BDS.

-Specific cases (such as that of the Taring Padi mural) will often be used not to critique those cases, and the patterns and structures they may be part of, but as confirmation that all artists and intellectuals from Muslim countries are representative of some antisemitic Islamist hive mind. This is a transposition of the logic of antisemitic “reason” into the much more salonfähige register of anti-Muslim racism.

So what can we learn from this mess wrapped inside a train wreck wrapped inside an omnishambles?

-If you’re German, try to control your urge to turn intellectuals and artists from the Global South into racist caricatures. Hey, perhaps even question that urge, and your entrenched habits and privilege coated in self-righteousness. And if you’re coming from elsewhere to Germany to participate in an exhibition, be aware of the context, and try to confound the expectations of self-righteous racists.

-You try to shift the terms of debate and develop ways of living and organizing otherwise? You think of your practice as prefiguring postcapitalist forms of life? That’s just grand, but deserting from the Culture Wars requires tactical awareness and skills; otherwise you’re just blindly blundering into a minefield. Be mindful of context and perceptions. An opaque surface can quickly become a projection screen.

-It is up to you to make clear that your Anti-Zionism is not a front for antisemitism. It is up to you to prove that your “anti-antisemitic” critique of artists or intellectuals from the Middle East, Africa or Asia is not neocolonial cultural warfare.

-Don’t be anybody’s useful idiot. Try not to be a useless idiot either.

-Try again; fail better.

Anna Boghiguian

A conglomerate of three museums and the Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther und Franz König has just published a catalogue dedicated to a number of major recent works and series by Anna Boghiguian. In addition to an introduction by curators Nuria Enguita, Ann Hoste and Thomas Thiel, it contains essays by Quinn Latimer and myself, and a conversation with the artist by Pip Day and Pablo Lafuente.

My own contribution focuses on the motif of the Suez Canal in Boghiguian’s work, which triggers a series of reflections on colonialist globalization and corporate deterritorialization, on mimesis and construction, on instrumental reason and artistic research.

Scurrying Towards Kassel

In Germany, a grotesque coalition across the political spectrum has managed to effectively outlaw any substantial criticism of Israeli settler-colonialism, equating such critique categorically with antisemitism. This coalition ranges from the far right and the liberal-conservative center to the ex/quasi-leftists of the so-called “Anti-German” movement, which might as well be called “Utra-German” in its tendency to lecture intellectuals and artists of colour, and critical Israelis, on ze korrekt Dscherman way to deal with the Holocaust. Intellectually dishonest and politically deluded, the Antideutschen have certainly perfected the German art of transmuting feelings of guilt about grandpa’s Third Reich shenanigans into a wonderful sense of righteousness and superiority. Am deutschen Wesen wird die Welt genesen—one more time! Who cares if some vague group of barely human beings is made to suffer, allegedly? Surely they only have themselves to blame for they abysmal failure to be white. Why, many of them are even Muslims!

If the Anti-Germans are something of a fringe movement, they represent an extreme version of what is a suffocating dogma. The Bundestag’s BDS resolution has created a climate of fear. Hosting Achille Mbembe or Walid Raad in your institution might lead to your funding being cut. At its core, we’re talking about an extremely well-orchestrated campaign by a few key players and many, many useful idiots in politics and the media—from general weeklies such as Die Zeit and monomaniacal Antideutsche periodicals such as the loonie haven that is Jungle World to art magazines that ones prided themselves on their critical thinking. For some time now, the campaign has targeted ruangrupa, the Documenta’s artistic/curatorial collective. In the German McCarthyite imaginary, ruangrupa is antisemitic because they’re from Indonesia, which is a Muslim-majority country, geddit?

As a result, the forum We need to Talk! Art — Freedom — Solidarity, which was supposed to provide a platform for discussing these matters, has been cancelled by the Documenta organization, because a “free and productive discussion” seemed “impossible.” A strong contender for the 2022 German Irony Award! Oh, and there’s a whole history of acts of vandalism and intimidation occurring at Documenta-related sites in Kassel, including the ruruHaus and the premises of the Palestinian collective The Question of Funding. Candice Breitz shared a statement by Documenta insiders on a certain platform:

There is, by now, also some good reporting on this in the German press, but on the whole what passes for the deutsche Öffentlichkeit seems utterly incapable of self-criticism and self-correction in the matter. There have been statements by cultural institutions protesting against the BDS resolution, and warning of the consequences; there has been the petition Nothing Can Be Changed Until It Is Faced. I don’t see much of an echo. In the short term, at least, critical interventions such as A. Dirk Moses’ “Katechismus der Deutschen” only seem to have provided more fodder for the dominant discourse; Moses’ decolonial diagnosis of a ritualistic German Erinnerungskultur does not so much fall on deaf ears as its prose is parsed for snippets that can be de- and recontexualized for yet another article that affirms said “catechism.” And another one. And another one.

What is to be done? I wish I knew, beyond something must be done.

Top image: Stickers pasted onto the ruruHaus, Kassel.

Tip for further listening: Recently (before the attack on their premises), Errant Journal did a podcast with The Question of Funding, which can be found on Soundcloud and Spotify.

Questionnaire on Individual and Collective Work

The Flemish/Dutch art journal De Witte Raaf has published a questionnaire on individual and collective modes of working. I’m among the dozens of authors, artists and curators (including, obviously, a few duos) who have contributed a short text in response to the editors’ prompts. In case you don’t read Dutch and you want to get the basic idea: Google Translate is getting eerily good…


The ExitStateCraft series I’m editing for BAK’s Prospections platform continues with Eva Meyer and Eran Schaerf’s essay “Kahanoff’s Levantinism: The Anachronic Possibilities of a Concept.”

Postscript, March 2:

Paul Street has noted that “the Ukraine Crisis is a good focus for practicing the art of detesting two things at the same time“—i.e. “both supremely dangerous US-led Western imperialism and the less powerful but nonetheless criminal, imperialist, and supremely dangerous Vladimir Putin regime.” This in no way should result in false equivalences or whataboutism; Street rightly lays into the “foolish and false claims emanating from the Russian and Putin-fan side, which creepily includes no small number of “left”-identified and mostly white male Americans writing for and/or posting from media outlets that shamelessly channel Russian talking points for US and Western consumption.” Not just in America: In Germany, the Stalinist rag Junge Welt (which used to be the mouthpiece of the East German Communist party’s sclerotic youth organization, FDJ) memorably decreed that Putin had managed to “enforce peace”… on the day before the invasion.

Just as one can and should reject two (or more) things are the same time, so one should be able to keep different temporal horizons in view, and act on different timescales. In the short term, everything must be done to condemn, isolate and undermine the Putin regime, and to support the Ukrainian population—while still refusing to normalize and eternalize the post-1989 order of “democratic” nation-states that have frequently proven eager Putin pupils. I would argue that it is more crucial than ever to keep engaging with, and developing, the kind of social and political (and cultural) imaginary mapped by Meyer and Schaerf in their essay. Somewhat uncannily, it ends with remarks on experiments with “multinations” in Poland and Bukinova, a region that is today divided between Romania and Ukraine:

Zionist efforts to achieve territorial autonomy came into conflict with the Bund movement, which advocated for non-territorial autonomy. Bundist theoretician Vladimir Medem rejects the traditional overlapping of state and nation, and proposes a form of federalism based on autonomous social institutions for regions with mixed populations. Belonging to such a “multination” becomes a “subjective public right,” and through the formation of “entities under public law” the multination itself becomes the “legal person” of this law. This kind of personal autonomy was put to the test in the region of Bukovina in 1910 among Germans, Jews, Poles, Romanians, and Ukrainians. Plans to introduce it in 1914 in the Galicia region of Poland were hindered by the outbreak of war. Such ideas were also proposed at the Paris Peace Conference on 20 February 1920 in an attempt to mitigate the effects of the inevitable dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

It goes without saying that the ever grimmer news makes it difficult to keep this dual focus in view; when friends, comrades and colleagues are trapped in cities under siege, it’s hard to see past the end of one’s nose. This is imperialist chronopolitics: imposing empire as a perpetual present beyond which there is no tomorrow, and against which no life can be allowed to thrive.

BAK’s Prospections has now added a section in support of Ukraine:

2022: Two Books

By now, the proofs of two long-gestating book projects have almost been fully proofread and should be ready to go into print at the beginning of 2022—if there are printers who have the needed paper and labour-power, which is is a bit of an issue at the moment. Some further delays would be in keeping with these projects. I submitted the complete first draft of the Art and Autonomy reader (published by Afterall) in 2014, and the project has lingered in a kind of financio-organizational development hell for years. In a bout of foolhardiness, or foolishness, I’d decided that the usual reader format of selected texts plus introduction would not do, instead creating a complex montage of shorter and longer fragments connected by editorial text throughout the volume. I’m glad it will finally see the light of day, but I try not to think of the absurd amount of (socially unnecessary) labour-time that Afterall’s editors and I sank into this endeavour.

The origins of my two-part book project Forms of Abstraction stretch back even further, but the first volume has only been delayed by two years or so. The edited manuscript of this volume, Objections, was about ready to go to the designer in early 2020, when Covid hit and the project was put on hold, to be reactivated this year. Forms of Abstraction is my project on art and forms of financial, juridical and technoscientific real abstraction. Objections, focuses on objecthood and thingness; its sequel, Personafications, will explore subjectivity and personhood. But that’s another story for another time; for now, I’m relieved that this first part is about to be materialized.

[Images: preliminary cover designs.]