Appearing in the December 2021-January 2022 issue of The Brooklyn Rail, my article was commissioned by WJT Mitchell for the Critic’s Page that the magazine invited him to curate and edit. Tom’s chosen theme was “Sounding the Idols,” inspired by Nietzsche’s Preface to Twilight of the Idols where the philosopher advocates approaching the idols with a tuning-fork, thereby not smashing them with a hammer, but tapping them so that they are made to emit music.
My essay is part of my current book project on “extinction aesthetics” wherein ethical and aesthetic responses to species extinction—such as the ongoing loss of millions of birds and their birdsong—are argued to involve being attuned to these ensuing silences, to this mute music.
Featured in the new book, Pause.Fervour: Reflections on a Pandemic, jointly published by the Journal of Visual Culture and the Harun Farocki Institute, and edited by Manca Bajec, Tom Holert, and Marquard Smith. A free downloadable copy is available here.
Click on any of the images below to get a larger view.
It is a beautifully-designed publication, featuring short texts and artworks by over 50 writers and artists. The book is divided into four sections:
COVID-19, or the Pandemic Logic of Very Late Capitalism
Lockdown Life: Distance/Proximity
Biopolitics and Governmentality
New Ways of Caring
Click on the image of the article below, to open a larger view of the text.
I presented this talk on 15 April 2021, as part of “Thinking Loneliness” the sixth and last instalment in a series on “Loneliness and Technology,” organized by The English Association (UK).
Here is a description of the event:
What is the relationship between loneliness and the history of thought? How have thinkers thought about loneliness through time? The reinvention of aesthetics in eighteenth-century Europe saw an influential upheaval of the relation between solitude and sociality. Whereas aesthetic experience might remain a lonely state in practice, its ability to conjure the human faculties into a state of ‘free play’ was thought to register its inherently communal nature, which Hannah Arendt understood to form the core of an unwritten and arguably still unrealised political philosophy. Like solitude, loneliness has also been a site of philosophical fantasies: of self-presence and self-sufficiency, but also of the possibility of disposing with, or escaping from, markers of identity or difference, including race, class, gender and sexuality.
This event brings together scholars whose work has addressed loneliness at the intersection of philosophy, critical theory, aesthetics, and queer theory. We will be asking: what role has loneliness played in the history of philosophy? How has it structured philosophy’s attempts to establish the foundations, possibilities and limits of both subjectivity and community?
Accompanying “Empty History,” the exhibition curated by Adam Barbu, Barbu and John Paul Ricco engaged in a public conversation about the works in the show and the curatorial premises that guided Barbu’s project.
Adam Barbu: Nearly four years following my participation in Vtape’s Curatorial Incubator program, I was given the opportunity to return as the 2019 Researcher-in-Residence. The residency took shape over the course of a year of self-guided research in which I explored various materials from the Vtape collection and engaged in a series of conversations with peers and mentors about possible new readings of queer curatorial ethics. Early on in the project’s development, I was encouraged by peers to think without direction, restriction or expectation, beyond productive curating, beyond the efficacy of art, beyond the institutional demands that are traditionally placed on curating as an instrumentalized pedagogical practice. As opposed to many of the recent exhibitions that have sought to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, for example, Empty History does not attempt to expose histories of homophobic violence or reconstruct fractured queer histories in the name of inclusion, representation, and recognition. Throughout the course of this residency, I have worked to think beyond the logic of reparative visibility, focusing instead on that which cannot be reduced to representations of identity, community, and shared history. Empty History does not engage with the term “queer” as a descriptor of a sexual identity category but rather as an interruptive force of abstraction and illegibility.
In this move away from traditional articulations of so-called “progress,” I have explored the ways in which artists use video to unwork the narrative conventions of queer history. Dierdre Logue, Paul Wong, and Lucas Michael do not seek to repair the unjust and the uncertain by fashioning new queer utopias. Instead, documenting performances of solitary, workless gestures and activities, their works pursue forms of pleasure in the broken, the unchanging, and the everyday. Life is presented in a fixed state. They appear as artifacts of impossible, empty histories without purpose or end, carried out at the limits of what is often deemed recognizable queer political content. The critique this type of research tends to attract is that it is too theoretical, too abstract, detached from the collective need to produce legible, explicit representations in the fight against social injustice. Yet Empty History examines how this idea of a non-productive, non-teleological, workless curatorial practice offers us a way outside the time of heteronormative capitalist temporality. If the very meaning of queerness is rooted in a foundational rejection of normativity, perhaps it is this commitment to non-teleological thought that renders the practice of queer curating queer. Empty History considers the unworking of the time of progress as the work of curating queer history.
Through the frame of the residency and materials of my research, I have learned to embrace queerness as an intensified lateral movement. Early collaborators helped me think through the uncomfortable thought of an empty history, as well as my own anxious relation to progress. Having moved back to Ottawa from Toronto after finishing graduate school, I found myself emptying myself of an anxious attachment to productivity and success in the artworld. The structureless structure of The Researcher is Present program allowed me to slow down and let go of meaning. I have learned to embrace the false starts and the unresolved thought experiments—the wandering, the waiting, and the circling back that is queer curating.
Lisa Steele: I can’t help but recall the first wave of inclusive queer curating. From the 1980’s onward, we have seen so many exhibitions that adopt the belief that visibility equals progress—that if we can just be seen, then we are working against homophobia. Your show offers something like the opposite of that. I see works that are not simply identified as “queer.” They don’t reveal themselves. They do not present a story. And today, the story of queer progress has changed. There is gay marriage, there are conservative gay people—lots of them. There is something at stake in Empty History that is clearly different from that earlier notion of queering.
AB: Today, a number of influential curators remain interested in documenting queer progress by means of art historical inclusion. These exhibitions have become popular within major art institutions, functioning as evidence of a politically progressive programming agenda. With Empty History, on the other hand, I am simply interested in rethinking our relationship to the time of progress in ways that might be described as queer.
John Paul Ricco: A liberal politics of inclusion can never attest to the exclusions that necessarily and inevitably follow this attempt to render the invisible visible. That which is excluded includes those things that don’t get recognized as political in the first place. Because they don’t gain legibility or recognition as markers of identity, they are discarded and considered minor or inconsequential. In the three videos on display, we see everyday, ordinary spaces and seemingly inconsequential gestures inhabiting the empty space that is created through this exclusion from the political. The works reveal the extent to which that empty space can actually become a site of potential that is not attached to any determinate end result. In this sense, they suggest a certain inoperativity. Part of the problem with the notion of political-historical progress is that it is absolutely operative, productivist, and goal oriented, when so much of our lives are, in fact, not lived in this way.
Here, we are seeing both an emptying out of progress, in the way that Adam is speaking about, but also a kind of temporary, inoperative occupation of that empty space that gets created through the necessary, inevitable exclusions that come with a politics of inclusion. Further, what we see is an attempt to occupy that empty space without claiming or appropriating it in the name of visibility or identity but instead keeping it precisely illegible. It is illegible as queer, it is illegible as politics, and it may even be illegible as art. This is, in fact, getting close to what we understand to be the act of artistic creation. We are describing a form of resistance that is, at the same time, de-instrumentalized. And that’s creation—creation as a form of resistance to the operative, productivist model. A politics of progress has kept us from a politics of creation.
LS: It seems to me that Empty History opposes the sort of productivity that is encouraged by most art institutions. I am fascinated by how Adam’s curatorial project has come to mirror the open-ended structure of The Researcher is Present residency program itself.
JPR: There is a perfect pairing between the research practice, the thematic, and what we see in the gallery, which is somewhat unusual. There is, in other words, a real tightness in correspondence between the four works and the curatorial method. They are following the same kind of inoperative research creation model.
Kim Tomczak: These responses have led me to think about the economy and ideas of growth, perpetual momentum, forward movement, and so on. Today, there are radical economists proposing a non-growth slowness. Adam’s project helps me move into that space. I also think about the extraction economy. We assume that we will be extracting forever but this project invites us to consider how the economy doesn’t necessarily have to be productive in that kind of way. As John said earlier, life cannot simply be described as a progressive process.
JPR: Researching within an archive is archaeological, and archaeological research is based upon an extraction of content and resources. This project is attempting to call that process into question. It tries to locate that which cannot be appropriated—that empty space that can still function without being extracted and claimed. I find it interesting that Adam spent a year in an archive and produced a show called “Empty History.” It goes to show us that one can, in fact, find that impossible, empty place within the archive. In this regard, the empty is the open. It does not signify a negation or the absence of content. The empty is that which is not appropriated, and each of the works are clearly open in some way.
AB: Emptiness has taken on many different forms within the context of the residency. Earlier today, we spoke about the exhibition in relation to ideas of solitude and loneliness.
JPR: In each of the three videos, we face a solitary subject engaging in non-productive, workless activities. This inevitably begins to raise questions about whether that solitude is to be understood in terms of loneliness or as something other than deprivation. The works suggest a kind of aloneness that, in not wanting to produce a masterful subject, demonstrates the ways in which bodies can maintain both a sense of solitude and ways of being in a world that are not defined by isolation and loneliness. What we are seeing in these videos is not deprivation and a reduction of bodies but rather a kind of experimentation and openness.
LS: These three individual figures are quite powerful. In thinking about solitude and worklessness, I find myself reflecting upon the past, returning to what we use to call “the collectivity of the movement.” That sense collectivity, of getting together, of building something, of doing this and that—it didn’t really go anywhere, it didn’t really work out for all of us.
JPR: What is powerful about this project is that it does not seek to develop a new definition of progress. It simply asks, “Why progress?” At stake here is a certain self-divestiture of the subject, which, through a sense of anonymity, opens up the possibility of relations that are not predicated upon belonging or identity. In response to these works, we might want to think about collectivity or solidarity in ways that aren’t merely about individual expression, the expressive subject, and political polemics.
AB: Within this conversation about a retreat from the logic of political and economic progress, it seems that we are, at the same time, speaking about research and the values that become attributed to this work, both in the artworld and in academia.
Lauren Fournier: Our generation lives in such a sped-up state—what is expected from a researcher in the artworld and academia is so extreme. The expectation that one can continue to produce at such a rate is ultimately destructive. I think about ways of pushing against this compulsion for speed and progress, which I too have been complicit in as a writer and curator.
JPR: Those economies always operate based upon some sort of single general measure of significance. That’s capitalist logic, per se. In these works, there is an invitation for us to move away from the fetishization of work and labor and towards use and care. There is a wonderful moment in Paul Wong’s Perfect Day (2007), where he is searching within the archive of his CD collection desperate to find the Lou Reed record. We come to experience his frustration as he plays the CD only to find that it continuously stops and skips. From the point of view of use, what does he end up doing with the CD? He wants to take care of it. He washes the CD with soap and water in the hopes that it will begin to work again. Of course, it does not—but there is a way in which the work itself is still able to retain that notion of the perfect. There is something involved in the use and the care of things, like himself, his computer, his CD collection, and so forth, that this can still be a perfect day even though the scene doesn’t follow through to the end of the song.
LS: Speaking of the individual works in the gallery, I am intrigued by the placement of Lucas Michael’s Audentes Fortuna Iuvat (2001) in relation to Dierdre Logue’s Home Office (2017). From a certain vantage point, it seems as though the crushed trophy sits underneath the scene of the balancing act. On the other hand, it appears that the prize that could be awarded to any of the artists—like it is up for grabs.
Dierdre Logue: When Adam and I unpacked the work together, I thought: There is a trophy I would like. We started talking about the notion of second place, which is my favorite place. The idea that we might reinterpret the value of these measures of success is key, with the added tension that, at any moment, I could fall and crush my own psychic trophy.
I find it interesting that the sculpture shares a lot with video. It is placed on a mirror, which is reflecting light, and it is shiny and shaped but ultimately flat. It was chosen well, both because of its video-esque sculptural attributes and in its recognition that failure, or the lack of aspiring to the trophy, might be the prize. It is deflated. Its guts have been pushed out. But there were no guts to begin with, right?
KT: I am curious what to make of that term “failure” within the context of this exhibition.
AB: Dierdre, I am drawn to what you said about the symbolism of the trophy—that the so-called prize lies in not wanting it to begin with. Certainly, in recent years, there has been great deal of writing published on the relationship between queerness and failure. But this idea of failure would seem to suggest the opposite of success. And, as John has mentioned, this open-ended, empty space of self-exploration is not simply a matter of failure but inoperativity, impotentiality, and worklessness. In works like Perfect Day, what we see is a kind of lateral intensity that operates outside of the binary logic of wins and losses.
DL:The Queer Art of Failure (2011), along with various other texts in queer theory history, identify failure as a kind of departure from or resistance to traditional readings of success, especially in terms of cultural production. It is important to note that the works are not empty of other narratives, including moments of self-loathing, as in Perfect Day, or moments where the body is trying to work through something that in fact, lacks meaning, as in, Home Office. Failure has led us to think about our futures and how to navigate them as queer bodies. It has also given us certain permissions to begin thinking about ways in which artists might resist through the not doing of something—by means of negation. So, if we think about your thesis and the idea that these works might offer us the opportunity to reimagine history, then, in fact, they also offer us the opportunity to imagine not doing anything. That not doing anything could have enormously powerful implications on the future. In my work, failure has led to questions of future or futurity as opposed to the idea that failure has one necessary opposite or counterpoint.
JPR: I am hesitant about the language of failure simply because it retains so much of the subject and especially the psychological subject. Empty History doesn’t seem interested in documenting those kinds of struggles—of trying to be a subject or even failing to be one. Instead, drawing from the writings of Leo Bersani, what we are seeing is a move from the psychological subject to the aesthetic subject, and from the aesthetic subject to the ecological subject—that is, something beyond interiority or success or failure. It is, in other words, not about who I am but how am I the person that I am. In each of the works, there is an affirmation that, through these inoperative, workless activities, this is how I am who I am—this is my mode. These activities are not necessarily negative or positive but do seem to suggest the extent to which the “how” of how I am is so dependent upon objects, places, and things. In Fixed Kilometer (2018), for example, it is almost as if that is precisely what the artist is pointing out. It is that extension, which is, in passing, there, and there, and there.
AB: Of course, the invisible distances Michael traces are anything but sequential. The video remains a fragmented portrait of the artist organizing his world at a critical distance. In certain instances, there are significant gaps in time that span between takes. Fixed Kilometer invites us to consider the absences that necessarily give shape to a work’s narrative structure. The video was not created quickly, and there is a great deal of living that is undocumented within the frame of the screen. I find myself returning to that which is not included in the final presentation of the work—namely, the countless surfaces that cannot but remain unscanned and untouched by the artist’s curious, wandering index finger.
If there is any way to hold out hope today, it must not be the protracted optimism of liberalism and its implicitly theological promise of ultimate redemption: “one day, just you wait.” Instead, the kind of hope that I will speak of here is immanent, yet precisely as the immanent force of finitude.
One figure of it is found in Goethe’s Elective Affinities: “Hope shot across the sky above their heads like a falling star.” Following Calvin Warren’s philosophy of black nihilism and the latter’s absolute refusal of the politics of hope, we might refer to the falling star as an image of spiritual hope—its luminescence darkening the sky as it cosmologically burns bright. Unlike the politics of hope and its infinite deferral, the worthiness of such cosmo-spiritual hope lies in it standing apart from both the torment of expecting what cannot be had (ends), and of bestowing upon hope the power of a mitigating force (means). As the last gift of the gods, hope (Elpis) is what remains in Pandora’s jar, after her curiosity led her to open the container, thereby letting all of the other evil forces (except hope) out into the world. At the end of, The Adventure (2015), Giorgio Agamben writes: “The fact that hope, as the final gift, remains in the box means that it does not expect its factual accomplishment in the world—not because it postpones its fulfillment to an invisible beyond but because somehow it has always already been satisfied” (93). What might Agamben mean by this, and how is such a postulation not a capitulation to the status quo, and hence perhaps a fate even worse than the politics of hope?
I think one answer can be found in a text by Agamben published twenty years earlier, on the writer Elsa Morante. Toward the end of that essay, included in the collection The End of the Poem (1996), Agamben turns to Morante’s theoretical description of colour and light in paintings by Fra Angelico. As when she writes: “Colours, are a gift of light, which makes use of bodies…to transform its invisible celebration into an epiphany…It is well known that to the eyes of idiots (poor and rich alike) the hierarchy of splendours culminates in the sign of gold. For those who do not know the true, inner alchemy of light, earthly mines are the place of a hidden treasure” (Agamben, 106). As Agamben explains, “The ‘celebration of the hidden treasure’ is therefore the becoming visible, in bodies, of the alchemy of light. This alchemy is both a spiritualization of matter and a materialization of light”—something like a falling star.
Agamben then reminds his reader of one of Kafka’s aphorisms: “The fact that only the spiritual world exists deprives us of hope and gives us certainty,” and once again we are faced with what appears to be a counter intuitive. Yet only if we refuse to see spirituality as a materiality of its own, precisely as keyed to the glimmer of starlight, of moonlight. Such that, as he goes on to say, “the loss of hope (even of that retrospective hope, nostalgia for Eden [or that prospective hope, promise of emancipation] is the terrible price that the mind must pay when it reaches the incandescent point of certainty” (108).
It is that incandescence of which Goethe and Morante wrote, and that we might imagine remains contained in Pandora’s jar, now a symbol for the colonization of cosmo-spiritual hope. Hope is neither a hidden treasure nor a future salvation. Instead, its mystery is the secret held by Melville’s Bartleby, who we might imagine, in the near silence of his preference not to, holds out the hope that salvation (appropriation) and damnation (abandonment), will no longer be the extraneous forces that bear upon life, but that instead, he will be able to exist as the singular self that he is—irreparably unfinished in his finitude, and therefore to be loved.
In a curious statement several years ago, Giorgio Agamben claimed that “the fundamental ontological-political problem today is not work but inoperativity [inoperosità].” Yet, even if he goes on to unfold “the poetics and politics of inoperativity” in terms of potential and use, the meaning of this term remains elusive. It would seem to translate Maurice Blanchot’s formulations in his literary criticism and fiction of “désœuvrement,” designating at once “worklessness” and “unworking,” as later reelaborated by Jean-Luc Nancy, among others. But it also resonates with a sequence of motifs turning around the problem of nonwork more generally, such as leisure, expenditure, play, erotics, fugitivity, inertia, revolution, sabbath, failure, etc. We could venture that the diffuse semantic field of inoperativity suggests on the one hand varied modes of refusing, undoing, or deactivating given operations and structures. And, on the other hand, it implies another way of doing or being in common—that is, other ways of coexisting or living in the world—no longer captured by the powers of appropriation, re-production, and rational instrumentality otherwise presiding over the work of modern humanity. For this seminar, we invite papers that think through arts, literatures, or theories of inoperativity across the disciplines, with a particular emphasis on its ethical and political stakes.
Michael Krimper and I are organizing this seminar (panel) for the next American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) conference, which will take place online from 8-11 April, 2021, with Montreal being the host city.
On Friday, August 7th, 2020 at 2PM (EDT) via Instagram Livestream, I’ll be in conversation with Adam Barbu, for a discussion of “queer solitude and non-reparative curating.”
We’ll return to Barbu’s recent exhibition Empty History (Vtape, 2019), now in the context of the COVID pandemic, and the current and ongoing degradation and dispossession of so many lives. Juxtaposing two theorists: Eve Sedgwick on “paranoid and reparative” reading, and Gilles Deleuze on “living in a world without others,” we’ll discuss an ethics and aesthetics of queer solitude as non-paranoid and non-reparative modes of being in the world. You can join the livestream here:
Late in 2019, Vtape presented the exhibition Empty History curated by Adam Barbu. This exhibition questioned histories of queer singularity and progress and was an elegant exploration of what he referred to as the “everyday”.
This conversation is a chance to revisit that exhibition and consider it in relation to the unprecedented conditions that surround us all. There is a short video currently available on the Vtape website that is a walk-through of the exhibition when it was installed in November-December 2019 in the Bachir/Yerex Presentation Space at Vtape. www.vtape.org
Works in the exhibition DEIRDRE LOGUE, Home Office, video, 2017, 03:33 LUCAS MICHAEL, Fixed Kilometer, video, 2018, 46:35 LUCAS MICHAEL – Audiences Fortunas Iuvat, sculpture, 2011 PAUL WONG – Perfect Day, video, 2007, 7:30
Adam Barbu is an independent writer and curator based in Ottawa. He holds an MA in Art History from the University of Toronto. In 2015, he was the recipient of the Middlebrook Prize for Young Canadian Curators. Some of his past exhibitions include The queer feeling of tomorrow, Art Gallery of Guelph (2015-2016), A minimal doubt, Videofag, Toronto (2015), and The Circle Won’t Be Broken, Visual AIDS, New York City (2015). He has contributed to publications such as Canadian Art, Esse, Espace art actuel, Momius, and the Journal of Curatorial Studies.
“There is a lot of spontaneous, ad hoc opinion-making and premature commentary around, as to be expected. However, the ethics and politics of artistic and theoretical practice to be pursued in this situation should oblige us to stay cautious and to intervene with care in the discussion. As one of JVC’s editors, Brooke Belisle, explains: ‘We are not looking for sensationalism, but rather, moments of reflection that: make connections between what’s happening now and the larger intellectual contexts that our readership shares; offer small ways to be reflective and to draw on tools we have and things we know instead of just feeling numb and overwhelmed; help serve as intellectual community for one another while we are isolated; support the work of being thoughtful and trying to find/make meaning…which is always a collective endeavour, even if we are forced to be apart.’”
My article originates from a workshop seminar that I taught on July 4th, for this year’s group of young curators who are taking part in the Curatorial Incubator program at Vtape in Toronto. The program’s call read as follows:
“We live in hope of deliverance from the darkness that surrounds us.”
The darkness. We each have our own and then there’s the shared sense of despair that bubbles up when we consider the degradation of our Mother Earth through our own polluting ways, the never ending wars that sweep refugees towards borders that close in their faces, the stories that are told, the lies that circulate. There is no end.
And yet we move on. Not in the way the so-called Enlightenment projected – towards greater and more perfect perfection. But just moving: towards love, towards caring, towards hope. At Vtape, we felt that we needed some of this spirit, so we propose that the current Curatorial Incubator look through our holdings to find those works that best exemplify hope. Happy hunting!
Falling stars, black nihilism, Elsa Morante, Walter Benjamin, Bartleby, Giorgio Agamben, and Pandora are brought together in this brief meditation on what an image of hope might look like today.
This issue or more properly, Stratum 7, also features essays by Alain Baidou, Bruce Clarke, Priscilla Wald, and many others. It also includes fiction, music, and sound works.
Through a reading of Agamben, Foucault, Heidegger, and Marcus Aurelius, I argue for the virtue and value of disappearance, and the ways in which the force of extinction is the provocation for thought, itself. Taking disappearance as other than negative, and finding its ecological correlate in extinction, I am interested in instances of being attuned to, and inspired by, the sonorous sound of the invisible flight of the birds, as moments when ecology becomes muse-ecology.
Join the Centre for Ethics for The Ethics of COVID,an interdisciplinary series of online events featuring short video takes on the ethical dimensions of the COVID crisis.
Isolation, Loneliness, Solitude:
The COVID-19 Pandemic Has Brought Us Too Close Together
In this brief talk I discuss how distance is the spacing of the ethical, isolation is the evacuation of that space, loneliness is the deprivation of the self, and solitude is what we need to reclaim as the only means by which an ethical sense of the common might take place. Drawing upon the work of Arendt, Agamben, Blanchot, and Foucault, I proceed to explicate how it is that the COVID-19 pandemic has actually brought us too close together.
This is an online event. It will be live streamed on the Centre for Ethics YouTube Channel at 3pm, Friday, May 29. Channel subscribers will receive a notification at the start of the live stream.