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SEMINAR BY CYRILLE BRET #3 – Which direction to activate an object


Proposal for a seminar in Strasbourg

Session 3 : Which direction to activate an object

A. Horizon to activate an object as an object (common objecthood)

Here comes the moment to conclude this seminar in a banquet, understood as a freindly space but also in the Ancient philosophical tradition as a proper space to the intellectual dialogism. So let’s realize this statement from Tom Marioni (conceptual artist born in 1937 in Cincinnati, Ohio) : « Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art (1970-…). »

In one of its One Second Sculpture (1969), the artwork was conducted in tossing a metal tape (one meter long) that folds loudly in one second, then find his right form and falls to the ground. A photography was taken at this decisive moment, its kaïros. Art critics are usually looking at this piece like if it were only a performance, but I don’t agree with them. It is much more about activating (thanks to the performance) the plastic and meaning possibilities of the the metal tape, regardless to its common use, fixing it through a photographic image that is less documentary than narrative, in order to built a cognitive tension, highlighting the process and opening to the spectrum of possible interpretations. But when this artwork is exposed in an art exhibition, it is in absentia (the object is not presented).

One of the main factors of the activation due to handling, albeit mental. This is a main dimension of art since 1955. We saw it in the various works presented by the students during the past two weeks. Looking at one of the artists to whom I dedicated a part of my research, namely Robert Filliou (1926-1987), we can notice it :

  • In the multiple titled Optimistic Box n°1 (1968), he created a subtile disjonction in a little wooden box containing a cobblestone, by the active principle of a reading in two stages (front / back ; inside / outside ; with two sentences : 1 – « thank god for modern weapons », 2 – « we don’t throw stones at each other anymore ». So in that case, we can say that handling is led by the verbal statements, but made possible by the material of the object device. The additional ingredients of this activation is the irony, the reference to social context… but also the possibility to violate the second sentence and to use it against policemen Boulevard Saint-Michel (or to crack nuts…) ! This optimistic Box n°1 is a fantastic storyteller.

  • In the multiple titled Sans objet / Without Object (1984), a brick is having a stamped statement : « SANS OBJET / WITHOUT OBJECT ». Two meanings seem to oppose : first, the paradoxal assertion that it is NOT an object, and secondly, the fact that in french, « sans object » means something like devoid of intent or meaning. To Robert Filliou, such an artwork functions as a « mind opener ». This statement activate the deconstruction of what we are calling « object », approaching what a « thing » is. This case requires us to take some sort of via negativa of activating ; this is to annihilate the potential of the object as a practival fulfillment with a special agency (see synthesis of the seminar, 1st session, part B)

We can see that developping a compartmentalized typology of activation has no sense, because we can multiply the examples that combine several factors or parameters (process, shaping the future of an object, structured as narrative etc.), without a strong precision concerning its historical determinations.

But we can also notice, since the 1960′s, that some artists are activating objects in an internal horizon, playing inside the ontological and social frame for the artwork in Euro-centered art history, which means that they accept the four paradigms (see synthesis of the seminar, 1st session, part A), especially that the artwork is unique and deals with a semiotic and material closure (even if the meaning could be opened). But what would happen if we do not accept this way of thinking, as contemporary anthropology invites us to do (see Appadurai, Bonnot, Latour…), looking at objects as not really forclosed but extended, intricated in social contexts as full social actors.

B. Horizon to activate an objectlike (fluid ontology) in various social dimensions

Dora Garcia wrote a book in 2009, which is a part of a social and artistic experimentation. This book is titled Steal this Book, and beginns like this :

« If you have this book in your hands, chances are that you stay in an exhibition, in a room dedicated to the artist Dora Garcia. Not far from you should be a sign that indicates that this book, or rather a certain nomber of these, is what constitutes the exhibited work. Equally not far from you, there should be a guard, who from time to time casts a glance in your direction and surveys your comings and goings. If you have opened this book and are reading these lines, you will also cast a glance at the guard beforehand, and looked for a sign of approval or prohibition. If you continue to read, you will not know whether the absence of any explicit sign in return for your mute questioning signifies his complete indifference, his tacit approval, or wether he is now approaching and will express disapproval a moment from now. It would be equally preferable to continue to peruse this introduction in a different place, at homme for example, or in a café, at a moment and in a position in which you would be far more disposed to reading. Yhe thought has already crossed your mind that it is a particularity tiresome to read standing up in an exhibition, and this book, by all appearences, is made for reading ; it is even composed of text alone. So ? Take this book, put it in your pocket, in your bag, and leave. If you dare. »

In such a case, activation deals with many intricated factors :

  • simulacrum device : object is part of a sculpture (accumulation)

  • theatrical protocol (with the guard playing a role)

  • cognitive and social trap

  • Object as an « autorized narrative » of the performative process

  • Second life of the object removed from the initial installation during the exhibition, which can be stolen again (in my flat)

What about using a smartphone or any screen portable device to transfer and/or translate the ontology of the objct from something unique and material to something digital and which may be broadcast. Is the object soluble in our nowadays screenfull lifestyle. How can we activate an object through its ontological mediation.

Elspeth Diederix, Iphone, 2011 : This picture show us (in a visual metaphora) a way to work in this track, even if it is a photographical work.

To conclude (an endless conclusion)

The dichotomy does not prevent these two strategies to also be representative of the news of contemporary creation, even if the first strategy is historically older. Of course we haven’t been able to exhaust the subject during these past three weeks, but to open and explore some things to think and work, hoping to discover interesting ones. What I take from this experience, is how the combination of contemporary aesthetic theory and art history in one hand, anthropology and pragmatist social theory in an other hand, and last but not least real artistic practicals during the week is a relevant approach, on account of the difficulties to understand what an object is and how man can activate it.

Thanks to all of you,



Arjun Appadurai, The Social Life of Things. Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Cambridge, The Cambridge University Press, 1998

Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large : Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, Minneapolis, The University of Minnesota Press, 1996

Arjun Appadurai, The Future as Cultural Fact : Essays on the Global Condition, New York, Verso, 2013

Howard S. Becker, Robert R. Faulkner and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Art from Start to Finish, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2006

Thierry Bonnot, L’Attachement aux choses, Paris, CNRS, 2015

Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture, Chicago, The Chicago University Press, 2013

Nelson Goodman, Languages of Art, Cambridge, Hackett Publishing, 1976

Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking, Cambridge, Hackett Publishing, 1978

Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Oxford, The Oxford University Press, 2007

Alfred North Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, Cambridge, The Cambridge University Press, 1920

Richard Shusterman, Pragmatist Aesthetics. Living Beauty, Rethinking Art, Lanham, Rowman and Littlefield Publishing, 2000

Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art. A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1996

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