Reinhard Braun

Radical theory
and/or “dirty” art?*

The theoretical difficulties begin with the question: how does the artist find the reality by which he is supposed to orientate himself? Where is this point of comparison of his activity, and how does he identify it? He has instruments, ideas, convictions, he has certain technical skills, he has a trained eye that sees the world in a certain way, he has before him not only the works of older artists and contemporaries, he also has the works of scientists, theologians, politicians…

Paul Feyerabend1

What seems to be a question about a possible context of art, is for Paul Feyerabend in fact a question about reality and truth. He seeks to verify the demand “that an art work or a scientific view is true or corresponds to reality” with the aid of the methods of representation of painting, but, in doing so, raises a philosophical question and already argues that, in his case, “styles” do not produce reality but rather models that, in turn, are verified on the basis of other models. What we refer to as reality, “in reality” appears as the production of a consistency of models – and these models are never merely aesthetic or, in the broader sense, artistic, but rather models of cognition, experience, appropriation, reproduction, knowledge and, last but not least, power.

In numerous series, if not to say research projects, Thomas Feuerstein has focused in recent years above all on “models” that aim to create such a consistency between “reality” and experience, politics and/or culture. It evolves that some of these models lead an astonishingly cheerful existence as meta-discourses of cultural, social and political life, even though the “grand narratives” have long been said to be defunct: mediatisation, cybernetisation, biopolitics, identity politics. All the concepts listed above as buzzwords are still incessantly diffusing as ordering terms for social macrostructures in the form of lifestyle plots in every-day cultures, becoming practically unrecognisable in the process, but – precisely in their diluted form – constituting valid hegemonic projections for politics and identity. Implant surgery is a symptom of a completely reworked politics of the body; cybernetisation is just a word for the total foundation of social and cultural systems of exchange on (digital) information and representation; mediatisation, in turn, outlines the concentration of cultural representation on the “one screen” of the mass media (which has long included the Internet). The underlying social concept – the new version of a “grand narrative”? – can be described as the total technologisation of all areas of life and science, the economy, the military, the administration, and, last but not least, the body itself, “as the subjugation and emulation of its [nature’s] laws in systems, programs and machines”.2 The modernist narrative, splintered and dispersed in countless discourses, nevertheless seems not to have come to an end. If Zygmunt Bauman, for example, refers to the liquefaction of even micro-political structures in contemporary society, postulating an abyss “between general order on the one hand and all its agencies, vehicles and stratagems on the other”,3 we might take the concept of technologisation to demonstrate how it is virulent on the level of general order and within the agencies, vehicles and stratagems – without this describing a system of order that would bond “the communicative patterns and structures of action co-ordination, individual life-plans to collective political action”.4 We find ourselves facing a situation in which coherence appears through contingency, in which multiplicity at the same time represents a disciplinary power, and hegemony turns out to be a “task description in the specifications of individual self-realisation”.5

In the series “Der Künstler als Avatar” (which is, in turn, part of the “Biophily” project, 1995 – 2001), Thomas Feuerstein plays with the disappearance of the artist in the media environment: in different versions of video installations, the artist only appears as a (fictitious?) figure “within” a setting presented on a screen that is throughout reminiscent of laboratory situations (cf., for example, “Only a Dead Artist is a Good Avatar: Der Künst-ler als Avatar # 25”, 1999) and that, at the same time, forms the real setting for the video installation.

The total transgression, if not to say transsubstantiation of the (artist) subject is the issue: images of being overcome by technology, by an “instrumental rationality”, that renders, or seeks to render, the real and its double indistinguishable (set pieces from mythology and pornography are found as illustrations in these fictitious spaces and seem to be a retrospective view of a body, a concept of body, that may only be reconstructed with the aid of image databases and archives; cf. already “Whatever: Der Künstler als Avatar # 01”, 1996). In any case, the (in some cases pitifully enacted) figure of the artist appears to stand for the “mixing of cultural, mythical and technological fields”.6 The various environments in which this disappearance in mixing is enacted, in turn appear as spaces in which the methods, concepts and ideologies of accessing the body and the subject are arranged into a sometimes menacing constellation of science and/or culture. Countless set pieces from pharmaceutics, biology, medicine, everyday culture or exuberant staffages of non-European cultures enter into baneful unions and create an environment in which the subject is discernible only as fiction, as a chimera, a product of these cultural/scientific systems. The spaces in which the artist appears as an avatar are characterised by alliances of practices, as have long hegemonically inscribed themselves in everyday life; they form the point of departure for the question as to the production of new relations and hint at these by widening to include a range of very different cultural systems. In the series “Der Künstler als Avatar”, Thomas Feuerstein already represents reality as a “dirty” product of hegemonic projections by science, engineering, politics, economy, and above all by technology.

So how does the artist find reality in the framework of overall cultural models, their large-scale syntheticisation and contextualisation – perhaps not the reality, but at least a reality – to which he could orientate himself/herself? Certainly not by means of modalities of representation, however they may be contextualised (although this debate leads towards a scrutiny of the role of images, that is not to fore in this case). Enlisting the aid of a concept such as “lines of articulation”, as proposed by Lawrence Grossberg, is more likely to put us on the right track. For him, the cultural objects of the study “present themselves as alliances rather than as practices, as a mesh of relations between the practices (that need not be textual, symbolic, designative or discursive)”. This also implies that that which is analysed can only be constituted through the practice of analysis, and that this makes it possible to create relationships “where there was no relationship or, more often, to create a new relationship from another”.7

For Thomas Feuerstein, these new relationships are created by means of a revision of the connections between modernism and contemporary post-postmodernism. He describes the Herculean element of modernism as fighting a battle “against disorder, chaos, ageing and death”.8 At the same time, this battle results in the subject being increasingly placed “in an operative relationship to the history of the future”9 and, we might add, in an operative relationship to itself as the subject of this history. And Feuerstein sees this operative relationship as a switch from culture to autopoietic systems. “This is most conspicuous in the example of switching from the subject to the system, from nationality to global gouvernance, from order to complexity, from politics to self-regulating markets, or, to cite Zygmunt Bauman once more, “by releasing the brakes, eliminating obstacles: deregulation, liberalisation, flexibilisation, increasing liquefaction, the unchecked development of financial, real-estate and labour markets”.10 These increasing transformations of all social systems are striving towards the climax of their autopoietisation, “where everything leads to a naturalisation of culture and a culturalisation of nature”.11

It seems, then, that, within the framework of a “current aggregate state of modernism, in which processes of materialisation and immaterialisation obey an antagonistic logic”, Thomas Feuerstein sees his artistic practices as a practice of constructing (unexpected, hypothetical, programmatic) lines of articulation and as the formulation of a criticism of alliances and meshes of relationships between practices, as produced by modernism as a big articulation machine: measuring, recording, categorisation, mapping, quantification, manipulation, control – as a criticism of an instrumental rationality that is still the effective metaphor of a science and a society that, devoid of all essentialism at the theoretical level, is devoted to an excessive materialism and reconstructs genomes and subatomic connections in experimental arrangements. The narrative of modernism in particular is a narrative of matter and its analysis; although Freud and Lacan de-centred the subject into semiological and symbolical components, unimpressed by this radical decentrisation of the subject, medicine ultimately reduced the subject to electronic conductivities and impulses, receptors and messengers. The body is hardly a historical “subject” any more, it is a plaything of genetically impeccable reproduction or genetically conditioned deformations, at the very least, however, of pharmaceutical conditioning. Are these the “works of scientists, theologians, politicians” that we must consider when talking about a reality of the contemporary world, and, if so: what lines of articulation can be hypothetically constructed, enacted or projected alongside, in between, or indeed against them?

To begin with, we must consider the fact that, even if current questions about society and culture still concern virulent articulations of modernism, they are currently taking effect in a completely different form than was the case in (first) modernism – with the two exemplary mass media, radio and television: today we are observing a post-post-modern, post-structuralist, post-semiological, etc. – “soiling” of contexts that is expressed in a veritably epidemic link-up of apparatuses, strategies, aesthetics and semantics: the distinguishing feature of that “anti-essentialist cultural production that is produced as if from the mixing console”12 and that creates wild connections among everyday things, science and politics, and that links up subareas of society by means of epidemically rampant micropolitics.13 “The dividing line that runs between tool and myth, instrument and concept, historical systems of social conditions and historical antinomies of possible bodies, including objects of knowledge, is permeable.”14

We can no longer come to terms with this elimination of borders and intermixing with the structuralist method of formulating a coherence of functional elements, structures of relationships – neither at the level of content nor of form. The attempt to “reflect on or renew their ‘order’, i.e. the mode of co-ordinating the processes that occur in them, by means of a normative approach”, evolves to be “practically hopeless and hence methodically inadequate”.15 The aim, instead, is to realise “how specific practices (that are articulated around contradictions that do not all arise in the same way, in the same place and at the same time) may nevertheless be conceived together”.16 In what form, then, can we conceive and conceptualise technologisation (with all its consequences, parasitic ramifications) and inscribe it in artistic production without understanding it as an ideology or teleology of a culture (i.e. as a classical superstructure symptom), but rather precisely as a line of articulation of disparate practices, contradictory discourses and, last but not least, experiences?

In “EUGEN – Hire all my Information”, the artist is also only present in the form of information about himself, not as an image but rather as a sperm donation for ordering from a Californian sperm bank. The artist as the material of art? The artist as an exemplary individual that allows itself to be vicariously imbued by technology, as once the subject was permeated by power, as Michel Foucault wrote? “The ‘texts’ created for the installations and models refer to the state of the individual mediatised and permeated by discourses and information. By way of weaving individual discursive threads, they seek to form a node that presents the artist’s situation as symptomatic of the world that is increasingly being experienced as contingency.17 In recent works, this idea of the text and the subject as a node begins to change towards a network structure characterised by contingent singularities that turns into a swarm entity, for example in “fiat: radikale individuen – soziale genossen”, that, in a storyboard in the style of a kind of comic, introduces the jellyfish as a synonym of a biomorphic network, that is then also executed as a light/crystal object. In the “fiat” project we also already see bioreactors with tumour cells and real house fungus. The figure of the artist is replaced, as it were, by biosystems that, at least for the duration of the exhibition projects, function as closed circuits and hence as autopoieitic systems. And in the concept of “confabulation”, the text becomes a hypothetical system of fictitious narrative, thus once and for all making Feyerabend’s question as to reality a fiction of cultural texts that establish themselves and continue completely beyond the realms of reality.

Thomas Feuerstein is initially essentially interested in “working through” the dichotomisations of modernism, in negating the antagonisms between “cutting and sampling, particularising and hybridising”, “separating and mixing”,18 that, for him, constitute the specifically modern aspect of modernism, and in opposing them with a networked procedure “that gets involved in everything”19 and that rejects the contrast between partial areas of society, the particularisation of discourses, for example those between art and science. And the aim of this rejection is precisely not a – para-scientific – meta-theory, a new system of order, a new totality (art?), formed from the fragments of a failed modernism, but rather specifically the soiling of discourses, the epidemic and radically contingent transgression of disciplines and subordinate theories, “mixtures and hybridisations of art with life, politics, science and economy”.20 The aim is not to reverse the liquefaction of modernism – whose goal was always to establish new, improved orders within the framework of the aforementioned instrumental rationality – but rather to reject the idea of alienation from an origin, to demonstrate the normative nature of totalities, and to insist on the fact that everything is torn apart, borrowed or stolen, and every idea of normality underlies what oppresses us.21 It may possibly be about the idea that dissolution and fragmentation are positive, affirmative, indeed entertaining conditions.22

Linda Singer describes this state in her “reworkings of power” – that are no doubt at issue, if we remember that modernism, like postmodernism, manifests itself as a powerful machine of signification and enforcement, particularly of the antagonisms outlined above between order and dissolution of order, between norm and elimination of borders – with the concept of “contamination” as a “central figure in social relations and social production”.23 She defines “the logic of the epidemic, assumed to be rampant, as a persistent epistemic matrix for the disciplinary production of cultural knowledge in general”,24 as a constant circulation of difference as part of the contemporary discourse industry. But this discourse of the epidemic cannot be opposed by a hierarchical system of distribution of knowledge and experience: the “failure” of modernism (and most definitely the failure of postmodernism) consists in the overproduction of difference – and, at the same time, this overproduction of difference has created the impression that this has equally settled the question of power.

But Linda Singer follows precisely this power, the “disciplinary production of cultural knowledge” down to its micro-social ramifications and, above all, as far as the production of bodies. The tricky question is always that of the power of discourses, particularly when – seemingly as a result of their liquefaction into countless contexts of everyday culture – these discourses have reached a confusing potential of differentiation and refuse to be named. Does, then, the strategy of interfering in everything, the soiling of contexts, constitute an adequate approach of opposing the liquefaction and epidemic, the disguising of hegemonic lines of articulation? Does this lead to new relations, where previously there were none? Or does this merely encourage the releasing of brakes, the elimination of obstacles?

Because, does not precisely the postmodern “discourse with no centre”, that would seem to have shed all ideologies, a theoretical “sprawl” with no centre, a nameless scattered practice characterised by dispersal, an “unclaimed space” of deregulation and destabilisation, as Zygmunt Bauman25 describes it, appear to be a postmodern, post-structural construct of a technologised society that functions without requiring power?

The dispersion of power in this unclaimed space cannot be neutralised by its localisation in countless discourses, it does not cease to be effective just because we come to understand its principles, nor may it be cancelled by excessively doubling the principle of dispersal. Rather, it seems to be important “(…) to understand the [cultural] process as a ‘complex, dominant structure’ that arises as a result of articulating connected practices, of which each is preserved in its unmistakable character and of which each is possessed of its own specific modality, inherent forms and conditions of existence.”26 For this reason, the practice of networking, that gets involved in everything, should not be misapprehended as an attitude of dissolution or of cross-over: it is not solely a question of following power in its ramifications or of transgressing all borders of cultural categories. From Foucault to Linda Singer, this discourse is one of clarification, of making visible, of creating knowledge, a discourse that proceeds on the basis that this knowledge may be turned against “power itself” as a strategic factor. Today, however, we see how “knowledge itself”, including knowledge that circulates, that is accessible, and that creates visibilities, has long become a strategic factor in the production of power. The aim, then, is rather not only to seek out the modalities of producing meaning that are effective in terms of discourse – down to the microdiscourses of dispersal and the epidemic – and to unmask, if you will, their working principles: it is equally a matter of giving a “different form” to dispersal and the epidemic, of establishing new lines of articulation, new meshes of relationships that, equally epidemically, follow other nodal points in the network of knowledge and experience. (In a sense, it is about “negating knowledge”, at the least, however, rejecting the conditions in which this knowledge comes about.)

“Does a global society need a uniform identity, as the human brain constructs a self; i.e., does the networked leviathan need a sovereign head, or are roaming, anarchical singularities better suited to react to chaotic processes, contingency and disorder? Can singularities be compared to biological swarms that organise their collective actions without a leader?”27 This question does not address questions of analysis but rather forms of the production of meaning, the construction of articulations that, beyond dispersal, seek to achieve a concept of organisation and construction, indeed also a concept of order, that is based, however, on the principle of contingency, singularity, coalition, alliance, strategy, meshes of relations and impulse neighbourhoods. So in view of the fact that Thomas Feuerstein has transformed the artist into an avatar, whose genetic form has already been relinquished, by drawing on biosystems, colonies of flies, algae cultures, etc., the current works refer to the (in my mind) difficult question to what extent we may draft up a credible and sound strategy of referring, with radical criticism, and yet free from fantasies of order, to those processes that pervade nature, the human being, technology, science, economy, politics, etc. in the same way; not so much to completing the project of modernism as completing the taming and reproduction of nature and recoding its laws in systems, programs and machines. In a sense, this strategy is based on the idea of subjecting even the most insignificant deposits of this by no means concealed ideology to a revision – not in the form of criticism that verifies the truth of cultural texts, but rather that intervenes in the semantics of their evolution, as it were, that rejects the texture of the texts themselves, that differentiate themselves epidemically, and, if you will, that works on an – equally epidemic, albeit, differentiated – “other” texture. Thomas Feuerstein seeks out, as it were, the moments of a contemporary scientific and cultural cognition in which difference congeals into normative constellations.

“Hence, cyborg politics insists on noise and on soiling and applauds the illegitimate fusion of animal and machine. Such fusions make man and woman problematic, they undermine the structure of desire, the imaginary power that produced language and gender, thus abrogating the structures and reproduction modes of Western identity, nature and culture, mirror and eye, servant and master, body and mind.”28 In the excess of liquefaction there are still traces of normativity and legitimisation, of a general order – the aim is to create the relationships that transcend and reject the legitimacy of this order. “Consequently, this art is a dirty para-art, art as science, as philosophy, as sociology, as politics, etc., that infiltrates extra-artistic forces in order to undermine foreign (immune) systems. This kind of art is a kind of subjunctive that, at the same time (!), can be art, something else and art, or even not art.”29

* Klaus Thoman (Hg.), Thomas Feuerstein. Outcast of the Universe, Wien 2006, S. 25 - 34, translated by Richard Watts.

  1. Paul Feyerabend, Wissenschaft und Kunst, Suhrkamp: Frankfurt/Main 1984, p. 40.
  2. Thomas Feuerstein, “Plus ultra. Zwischen Ekstase und Agonie”, in: Stefan Bidner, Thomas Feuerstein (Eds.), Plus ultra. Jenseits der Moderne?/Beyond Modernity?, Revolver: Frankfurt 2005, pp. 139 – 166, p. 140.
  3. Zygmunt Bauman, Flüchtige Moderne, Suhrkamp: Frankfurt/Main 2000, p. 11.
  4. Op. cit., p. 12.
  5. Op. cit., p. 14.
  6. Cf. Thomas Feuerstein,
  7. Lawrence Grossberg, “Was sind Cultural Studies?”, in: Karl H. Hörning, Rainer Winter (Eds.), Widerspenstige Kulturen. Cultural Studies als Herausforderung, Suhrkamp: Frankfurt/Main 1999, pp. 43 – 83, p. 62, 63, 65.
  8. Thomas Feuerstein, “Plus ultra”, op. cit., p. 140.
  9. Thomas Feuerstein, “Plus ultra”, op. cit., p. 146.
  10. Zygmunt Bauman, op. cit., p. 12.
  11. Thomas Feuerstein, “Plus ultra”, op. cit., p. 148.
  12. Dick Hebdige, “Heute geht es um eine anti-essentialistische Kulturproduktion vom DJ-Mischpult aus”, in: Kunstforum International 135/1996 – 97: “Cool Club Cultures“, pp. 160 – 164, p. 163.
  13. Cf. Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Kapitalismus und Schizophrenie. Tausend Plateaus, Merve: Berlin 1992, p. 17.
  14. Donna Haraway, Die Neuerfindung der Natur. Primaten, Cyborgs und Frauen, Campus: Frankfurt/New York 1995, p. 51.
  15. Claus Offe, quoted after Zygmunt Bauman, op. cit., p. 11.
  16. Stuart Hall, “Die zwei Paradigmen der Cultural Studies”, in: Widerspenstige Kulturen, op. cit., pp. 13 – 42, p. 35.
  17. Thomas Feuerstein,
  18. Thomas Feuerstein, „Plus ultra“, op. cit., p. 165.
  19. Op. cit.
  20. Op. cit., p. 166.
  21. Steven Shapiro, Doom Patrols. Streifzüge durch die Postmoderne, Bollmann: Mannheim 1997, pp. 18 – 19.
  22. Op. cit., p. 23.
  23. Judith Butler, “Überarbeitungen der Macht. Linda Singer und die Logik des Epidemischen”, in: BüroBert, minimal club, Susanne Schultz (Eds.), copyshop 2. geld.beat.synthetik. Abwerten bio/technologischer Annahmen, Edition ID-Archiv: Berlin 1996, pp. 112 – 126, p. 118.
  24. Op. cit., p. 123.
  25. Zygmunt Bauman, op. cit., p. 83.
  26. Stuart Hall, „Kodieren/Dekodieren“, in: Roger Bromley, Udo Göttlich et al. (Eds.), Cultural Studies, Lüneburg 1999, pp. 92 – 110, p, 93.
  27. Thomas Feuerstein, “Plus ultra”, op. cit., p. 163.
  28. Donna Haraway, op. cit., p. 67.
  29. Thomas Feuerstein, “Plus ultra”, op. cit., p. 166.