i wasn't there: the joys of immaterial art




leif elggren and CMVH

CM von Hausswolff and Leif Elggren


One of the most stunning contrasts between the current "post-digital" age, and all that has gone before it, is the difference in the level of respect accorded to secrecy, silence, and social invisibility. The craze for archiving every last word and sign on the World Wide Web, and for forwarding every mundane YouTube'd moment as the quintessential, defining act of its kind, has becoming an energy-consuming obsession for countless inhabitants of hypermodernity. This new hyper-anxiety over being noticed at whatever the cost, itself stemming from a strange conviction that a Web presence guarantees recognition, has led to a whole new burgeoning culture based on awkward revelations and disclosures. Everything from laughably melancholic video confessionals to desperate fleeting 'tweets' scream into a widening abyss for attention, while their originators remain assured of their transcendent importance. Elsehwere, there exist entire satellite TV networks offering a 24-hour diet of confessional "reality shows," showing that this phenomenon permeates more than just online life. The age of the information cascade is seen, by its most giddy proponents, as a time where not only everyone will have a say in shaping the future, but where constant scrutiny ensures that no falsehood will be able to cloak itself indefinitely in the mantle of truth.

Some of the current distrust of secrecy is justified, of course, especially when considering the duplicitous actions of a power like the U.S. government: the same governing body which rails against the uncomfortable disclosures of the WikiLeaks organization expects its imperial subjects to pass through full-body "back-scatter" scanners (often derided as "porno scanners") if they wish to travel on commercial flights. In this example, it is probably the duplicity of the government's attitude towards secrecy, rather than its desire to maintain a high level of such, that raises the ire of its more informed citizenry. However, the identification of secrecy with State control is symptomatic of a larger phobia, directed at seemingly anyone who refuses to enter into the online confessional sweepstakes, or even opts out of social networking services. As techno-science begins to take on more of a "savior" role for an anxious populace, secrecy and silence are seen as unequivocally negative and heretical acts; as nihilistic refusals to contribute in some small way to the growing body of emancipating knowledge. "Watch out for the quiet ones in the back," goes the hoary old trope, and now be sure to watch out for those who steer clear of the digital confessional booth.

Interestingly, the role of the artist in society has not changed as dramatically as it could have in this post-industrial, information-saturated era (the term "exaflood" has been coined to describe the latter state, in which the global amount of digital data was supposed to have been 988 exabytes by the end of last year.)1 That is to say that artists, like the shamans with whom they share some working methods, are one of the few social castes still given a few allowances to generate more mysteries and to trade in unknowns, rather than to merely tie up informational loose ends. More succinctly, they are allowed to indulge in activities that are not purely utilitarian or judged only by the yardstick of technical proficiency. I'd assume that these activities are tolerated for a number of reasons concerning art's supposed incompatibility with rational thought: either art is trotted out as a "weird" malady to be contrasted with the superior, purposeful labors of the ruling regime (the goal of the infamous Entartete Kunst exhibit in Nazi Germany), or it is used as a kind of litmus test to determine the strength of mainstream ideals. In any case, there is still a begrudging respect accorded to its ineffable power, even when it becomes domesticated by commercial or political forces. This respect sometimes even extends to the criticism of progress that it has enacted from the Industrial Revolution onwards.

The late J.G. Ballard claimed that a certain degree of obscurity was necessary for artistic longevity, saying "the Italians had the right idea... most of their paintings were in dimly lit churches, unclean and difficult to see. As a result, the Renaissance lasted for centuries."

Paul Klee's famous statement about the artist's mission notwithstanding (the artist is supposed "not to render the visible, but to render visible"), the artist has had a special relationship vis a vis raw information: not just as the individual who "renders visible" by articulating alien concepts as more recognizable forms, but as one who warps recognizable forms into something deeply mysterious, or one who converts mysterious psychic essence into mysterious physical sensation without being compelled to explain the whys and wherefores of this translation process. And, despite the spectrum of negative public reactions associated with abstraction-based art (or just any art that is not obligated to explain itself), it is not the reduction of human experience to ineffable, "uninformative" sound and fury that repels audiences. You can, after all, still depend on the explosive psychedelia of a fireworks show to draw an impressive crowd, or for a crowd to revel in the teeth-shaking noise of a drag race, as if it were a live music concert. Lack of a clear narrative is not an automatic disqualification from public interest, although we should shift our attention now from the ecstacy of information overload (e.g. noise) to the allure of shadows.

The arts of antiquity have bestowed upon us a rich harvest of creations that, while maintaining high standards of craftsmanship, forced their audiences to complete the picture in one way or another: in this respect, deliberate obfuscation or disorientation was not a sign of laziness or charlatanism, but a necessary spur to the imagination of the audience. To offer just one example, the skaldic poetry of Iceland frowned upon a situation of too much comprehensibility, seeing this as being poor form- such aesthetic criteria led to an intoxicating, allegorical style of verse in which ships were rendered as "waves' cliff ravens" and eyes were "moons of the face."  Thanks to this unique skaldic style of metaphor known as kenning, many yet more obscure verses have defied proper translation to this day. From the land of fire and ice to the land of the rising sun, rapturous mystery was a quality cherished by aesthetes, and its devaluation in the consumer age - where clearly defined form and technologically driven simplification took command - naturally embittered the best of them. Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki, in his In Praise Of Shadows, lamented a loss of such enlightening darkness during his own culture's confrontation with the 20th century, where "floodlamps had turned kabuki into a 'world of sham.'"2 The Butoh dancer Tatsumi Hijikata, also cognizant of this condition, defied consumerist Japanese modernity with his ankoku butoh ['dance of darkness'], earning supporters like the arch-aesthete Yukio Mishima in the process. Even those credited with dramatically altering our concept of the future have acknowledged the power of traditional information restraint as a seductive artistic device: the late J.G. Ballard claimed that a certain degree of obscurity was necessary for artistic longevity, saying "the Italians had the right idea... most of their paintings were in dimly lit churches, unclean and difficult to see. As a result, the Renaissance lasted for centuries."3

Bright white museum environs did become the de rigeur method of displaying representational artwork, but maximizing visibility did little to make the emergence of conceptual art more comprehensible. Conceptual art typically relied upon the placement of concrete objects as much as the purely representational forms of painting, sculpture and so on. The main difference was that the conceptual art object typically acted as a trigger towards some social drama or exploratory process that dwarfed the importance of the actual piece under examination; whereas audience reactions to representational artworks tended to be subjugated to the importance of the work itself. Critic Renato Poggioli rightly identified the work of prototypical conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp as iconoclastic, but also realized that "its more profound root is sometimes the quasi-religious inspiration toward an absolute emotional and mental freedom, the desire to reacquire an ingenuousness and innocence of vision which modern man seems to have forever lost."4 However, with such a modus operandi of psychic investigation in place, or of being as creative as possible with a minimum of emulation, it seemed that there was little need for any kind of physical artwork at all- could there not be "conceptual art" based purely on "concepts" and without any plastic forms acting as intermediaries between artist and audience? Or, more importantly for our discussion, could a mere proclamation of some great artwork or cultural event, with no documented evidence of its existence, achieve the same aims as an artwork that everyone can bear witness to?

Much late 20th century art would answer in the affirmative to this question. One of the more well-known precedents for "immaterial art" was Yves Klein’s infamous 1958 exhibition in the nearly empty Iris Clert Gallery - an act which, in some critical interpretations, essentially saw Klein selling the air in the gallery to the patrons. Elsewhere, the Yugoslav conceptualist group Gorgona translated this type of action into the realm of self-publishing: the Gorgona artist Dimitrije Bašičević, a.k.a. Mangelos, was put in charge of an “immaterial” edition of the Gorgona anti-magazine which never came to pass (the reader can probably already see the humor in a "sadly unrealized" edition that was intended to be immaterial in the first place.) Another example of this tendency was the “invisible LP” of Berlin’s impish conceptualists Die Tödliche Doris, whose content was meant to "materialize" upon simultaneous playback of their previous LPs Sechs and Unser Debut (both featured an equal number of tracks, themselves with equal running times.)

die toedliche doris

Die Tödliche Doris, proud inventors of the "invisible LP"

Actually, given recorded music's role as the most popular art form of the late 20th and early 21st century, it shouldn't come as a surprise that much "immaterial art" involved the creation of mythological music projects, and the seeding of grandiose rumors about equally imaginary music movements. Where no means to develop a "scene" exist in objective reality, sometimes the illustrated possibility of a "scene" will provide an adequate catalyst for the real thing. In the Düsseldorf of the late '70s, the terminally bored Franz Bielmeier and his friends could not wait as long as their peers for the new Punk Rock wave to come crashing down on their hometown, so they conjured up a radical Iggy Pop-inspired group, Charley's Girls, whose imaginary exploits were cataloged in a 'zine called The Ostrich well in advance of any real activity (notably, The Ostrich was the first German-language fanzine to deal with the punk movement.) The intrepid members of Charley's Girls also sent detailed info sheets on themselves to the English music paper Sounds, earning them the attention of journalist Alfred Hilsberg and even a published interview in the magazine.

The reclusive, Washington D.C.-based artist known as Mingering Mike also gained a kind of post hoc recognition (3 decades later!) for advertising his purely fabricated career as a 'soul' musician with dozens of hand-drawn, self-distributed sleeves for imaginary records (although the sleeves did contain unplayable discs fashioned out of materials like cardboard.) The stylistic approaches of Mingering Mike and Charley's Girls were indisputably different, although both pointed at the alchemical possibilities offered by projecting an idealized image before any recorded artifacts were issued. Both were fine examples of the formula "more 'x' than 'x' itself": the emulations of "authentic" soul superstars or punk rockers locked onto those forms' mythical essence moreso than its pioneering acts are able to, simply because their creators did not have to do anything but capture and distill that essence: not being anywhere close to the media apparatus of mega-stardom, they had no need to craft a separate image for talk show appearances, to make dramatic stylistic adjustments when sales forecasts began looking grim, or to dilute the message with one-off experiments meant to appease a "crossover market." Though the calculated hoax will always be looked upon as the work of disreputable individuals, this doesn't make artful fabrications any less capable of loosening the more ossified portions of our shared cuture, and generating real material change. With this in mind, it's also interesting to consider the case of author Laura Albert, whose notorious false persona "J.T. Leroy" she described as a "veil" rather than a hoax: Albert claimed that writing "as" Leroy gave her free rein to try out material that would not have worked otherwise. The immaterial artwork is therefore a valid testing ground that can color and shape future physical manifestations; getting an artist past his or her creative "blocks" as well as getting whole societies beyond their stagnancy of thinking.

A practicing performance artist can also build up an entire catalog of fictional cultural interventions, provided the artist's audience takes them on faith and makes no concerted attempt to disprove their claims. Rumors of bold, fantastic acts can still poke at the imagination as well as documented acts themselves, even in an age where the  slogan "YouTube it, or it didn't happen" can be taken seriously by a significant amount of the population. The most successful actions of this type often elicit a response along the lines of "it might not have happened, but just the thought that it possibly happened is inspiring." With this type of response achieved, we're left wondering what the real difference is between a properly documented art action and one whose origins are veiled in a fog of conjecture. Groups such as the Viennese Aktionists, who specialized in grueling psychic investigations, often undertook these "psycho-motorik" rituals in complete privacy, or with such a paucity of resulting documentation that the "aktions" may as well have been private. The aforementioned Hijikata also saw many of his vital performances "…dispatched to undocumented oblivion, as surely as the neo-Dadaists shredded and burned paintings."5 A 1978 Super-8 film by John Duncan, The Secret Film, was burned (along with the undisclosed location where it was filmed) after being screened to a grand total of eight times to eight individual viewers. All of these have, according to Duncan's account, agreed to keep their own identities secret along with knowledge of the film's contents. It would seem, in retrospect, that these diverse instances of non-documentation were deliberate, owing to the respective artists' desire to avoid tacking any kind of anti-climax onto their otherwise consummate acts. It's also worth noting that none of the artists could have foreseen the current moral climate, in which total disclosure is seen as a mark of goodness, yet the enforced secrecy of these works keeps them relevant and perhaps even 'taboo': these artists' skeptical stance toward inherited morality is given new life as "having nothing to hide" becomes the latest standard of that morality.

Then there are the entire imaginary nations, like the Kingdoms of Elgaland and Vargaland or the NSK State, which stand as the "immaterial art" projects par excellence (and this would probably be the case even if both weren't inaugurated by officially recognized artists with a long history of prior provocations.) The virtual territories of Elgaland and Vargaland, in the process of granting their citizens immortality (as promised on the passports issued by KREV), have humorously dismissed one of the great goals of art through the ages - self-preservation. More interesting, though, is the fact that individual KREV citizens can start their own "ministries" within the Kingdoms and assume any number of grand, even absurd, titles and honors. If one declares himself to be king of his own imaginary territory, as Leif Elggren and Carl Michael von Hausswolff have done with this long-running project, they may just find that the line between pantomimed power and actual power becomes less visible. Indeed, Elggren plays his trump card when critics start scoffing at the "pretension" involved in this project, or the completely fabricated sovereignty of its members: when confronted with this criticism, Elggren is quick to mention how so many positions of actual power are themselves based in pretension, "invoking their divine right to rule."6

Immaterial artwork has also provided artists with an opportunity to cast the affected ennui of hipsters and scene-makers in a harsh new light; or to just have a bit of fun at their expense. Nothing illustrates the nature of this social type like making them go on wild goose chases for non-exisent works. Going after this small coterie of individuals seems like an attack on a soft target, but they are the very avant-garde of an age where collecting information is a "creative" act in and of itself. The battle cry of the cosmopolitan hipster - "I was there!" - betrays the hipster subculture's ultimate passivity, i.e. its mania for being present at key cultural events and, by extension, for seeing and hearing everything there is to be seen and heard within the entire pop-cultural or sub-cultural milieu. Everything "has been done before," they will insist, which means that merely rooting out, filing, and grading cultural data is the new heroic act, usurping the actual creation of new artworks. In the present-day exaflood, the hipster is a 21st century upgrade of Nietzsche's Bildungsphilister ['educated Philistine']: a kind of information junkie that regrettably does little with this information other than cataloging it and liturgically reciting names, places and dates. Unable to refine this hoard of raw information into something that resembles a transformative experience, hipsters instead use it to engage in a continually escalating, inward-gazing trivia contest.

Because of this, hipsters' activity should not be confused with that of genuine archivists laboring away to guarantee that their beloved cultural artifacts will survive difficult times: their involvement with culture is purely recreational, and is a harsh indication that simply "knowing all there is to know" is no prerequisite for cultural evolution. One must still have the will to fashion new syntheses of already-existing forms, the determination to improve upon them, and the courage to withstand criticism in the process of doing both these things. Being "there" may be satisfying enough for most, but changing the circumstances of being here - that is, the total set of circumstances involved in sentient existence - is vastly more satisfying than achieving the former short-term goal. Critic Jacques Barzun, pace Nietzsche, comes to a similar conclusion:

Art is not opposed to reality but to morality and philosophy, that is to say, art is the opposite of convention and routine. Art is creation of the real, not […] a sedative. The Will To Power has nothing to do with the Darwinian instinct of self-preservation; it is the need of self-knowledge and self-assertion without which nothing can be done. […] The Nietzschean ideal is simply the quenchless desire of man to be conscious, cultured, and free.7

And so, the question has to be asked- is a life in thrall to endless information disclosure a "free" one? Can the promise of celebrity in exchange for secrecy lead to anything besides purely economic growth? It is easy enough to despairingly nod one's head in response to these questions, but it doesn't have to be this way at all. We should take heart that, in a time when every form and style of communication has the potential to be reduced to marketable novelty status, the art that defies "convention and routine" will survive. As convention increasingly becomes dictated by the mistaken assumption that vomiting out as much data as possible is synonymous with "creating identity," a renaissance of immaterial art may become a necessary counter-strike. Even if we acknowledge that, traditionally, this type of creative energy has always existed by another more alluring name - magic - we do not compromise its integrity one bit. Assumed identities, virtual territories, strange and cryptic proclamations: these are just some of the colors available on the palette of the contemporary artist-magician. Still more will become available as brave spirits continue to challenge those mass societies hell-bent on explaining and exposing themselves; fixated upon a self-preservation that never blooms into self-knowledge.


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1 Luciano Floridi, Information (A Very Short Introduction), p. 6. Oxford University Press,, Oxford / New York, 2010.

2 Thomas J. Harper quoted in In Praise Of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki, p. 47. Leete's Island Books, Sedgwick, 1977.

3 J.G. Ballard quoted in Hans Ulrich Obrist Interviews, Vol. 1, p. 67. Ed. Thomas Boutoux. Charta Books, Milan, 2003.

4 Renato Poggioli, Theory Of The Avant-Garde, p. 181. Trans. Gerald Fitzgerald. Harvard Univeristy / Belknap Press, Cambridge / London, 1997.

5 Stephen Barber, Hijikata: Revolt Of The Body, p. 48. Solar Books, London, 2010.

6 Leif Elggren, Genealogy, p. 134. Firework Edition, Stockholm, 2005.

7 Jacques Barzun, Darwin / Marx / Wagner: Critique Of A Heritage, p. 305. University Of Chicago Press, Chicago / London, 1981.