A Research Site Devoted to the Past and Future of Found Footage Film and Video

"The Literary and Artistic heritage of humanity should be used for partisan propaganda purposes." - Gil J. Wolman
“A lot of people who call themselves artists now are cultural critics who are using instruments other than just written language or spoken language to communicate their critical perspective.”
-Leslie Thornton

Monday, February 16, 2009

Nicolas Bourriaud

While I’ve been a fan of Lawrence Lessig’s passionate defense of remixing culture for years, I haven’t hailed him as its greatest spokesperson. As Lessig says in his book Free Culture after his failed defense of Eric Eldred which reached the Supreme Court: it will take more than legal arguments to defeat the repressive aspects of copyright law; judges must see the harm it can do to the spread of culture and ideas.

To understand just how valuable appropriation is to a progressive society, there is no better and more dynamic advocate than Nicolas Bourriaud. An art theorist who seemed to shape contemporary art discourse after his book Relational Aesthetics, Bourriaud went on to write a small and now out-of-print text which has greatly benefited my understanding of approproiation as a progressive cultural phenomena.

I am including my own thoughts and a link to the book in PDF form.

In Relational Aesthetics, Nicolas Bourriaud explored several artists’ propensity towards dealing with “the interhuman sphere: relationships between people, communities, individuals, groups, social networks, interactivity, and so on.” (7) Postproduction follows this trajectory towards the participation of individuals in shaping new meanings from extant materials—appropriation for the purposes of transformation. Though Bourriaud acknowledges that “citation, recycling and détournement were not born yesterday; what is clear is that today certain elements and principles are reemerging as themes and are suddenly at the forefront, to the point of constituting the “engine” of new artistic practices.” (9) Though this is likely the result of the ease in which materials may be copied, altered and disseminated, Bourriaud’s focus on the moving image is telling. In my own research, I observe this as the result of shifts in media popularity (Georges Braque using newspaper, Koons using mass produced objects based on the zeitgeist of the time) and the supremacy of moving images as a means to disseminate information and entertainment.

First, the term postproduction is used to describe “the scrambling of boundaries between consumption and production.” (19) Though I admire the gist of Bourriaud’s term and it correctly implies the “second look” which occurs with transformed works, it does not posses the singularity of meaning terms like “found footage” or “digital remixing” have. It would be my guess that Bourriaud wanted to include a term that carried the weight of cinematic production with it but also could easily be applied to art works. Like digital remixing and remix culture in general, Bourriaud asserts that postproduction is not simply a tendency in contemporary art, but rather a new and semi-permanent culture of making art. He argues that “artists’ intuitive relationships with art history is now going beyond what we call “the art of appropriation,” which naturally infers an ideology of ownership, and moving towards a culture of the use of forms, a culture of constant activity of signs based on a collective ideal: sharing.” (9) Bourriaud locates appropriation, not as a marginal art practice but as a central motif of contemporary art.

Though many of Bourriaud’s descriptions of appropriation are not groundbreaking in their originality, they constitute the first book entirely dedicated to the subject that I am aware of, and he masterfully explains the key concepts. I will briefly quote several of his descriptions of how appropriation functions in contemporary art:

“Notions of originality (being at the origin of) and even of creation (making something from nothing) are slowly blurred in this new cultural landscape marked by the twin figures of the DJ and the programmer, both of whom have the task of selecting cultural objects and inserting them into new contexts. (13)

“Artists today program forms more than they compose them; rather than transfigure a raw element (blank canvas, clay, etc.), they remix available forms and make use of data. (17)

“In a universe of products for sale, preexisting forms, signals already emitted, buildings already constructed, paths marked out by their predecessors, artists no longer consider the artistic field (and here one could add television, cinema, or literature) a museum containing works that must be cited or “surpassed” as the modernist ideology of originality would have it, but so many storehouses filed with tools that should be used, stockpiles of data to manipulate and present.” (17)

“The material they manipulate is no longer primary. It is no longer a manor of elaborating a form on the basis of a raw material but working with objects that are already in circulation on the cultural market, which is to say, objects already informed by other objects.” (13)

“To use an object is necessarily to interpret it. By using television, books, or records, the user of culture deploys a rhetoric of practices and “reuses” that has nothing to do with enunciation and therefore with language whose figures and codes may be cataloged.” (24)

“A DJs set is not unlike an exhibition of objects that Duchamp would have described as “assisted readymades;” more or less modified products whose sequence produces a specific duration.” (38)

Bourriaud’s continuous invocation of both DJs and programmers seems highly applicable to the dual influences of hip-hop and computer technologies which inform digital remixing. The idea of the DJ as a curator or archivist and the programmer as a person that utilizes platforms, images and processes in an ensemble to form a new product mirrors the practice of assemblagist or collagist. Additionally, Bourriaud correctly places historical bodies of work as places to begin from by replicating those materials and altering them. One cannot help but remember Situationist artist Asger Jörn’s project to “update” paintings by simply painting over reproductions to make them “modern.” This kind of artmaking questions a teleological end to the process of creating an artwork as once supposed and constructs a new paradigm. Bourriaud says, that “The artwork is no longer an endpoint but a simple moment in an infinite chain of contributions.” (20) This kind of art making in which works are constantly revised, revisited and altered mirrors the programming algorithms for the Wiki in which a page is constantly changed (for better or worse) under the auspices of improvement over time. Briefly, I will list some of Bourriaud’s comments on the idea of collective and continuous art making:

“To rewrite modernity is the historical task of this early Twenty-First Century; not to start at zero or find oneself encumbered by the storehouse of history, but to inventory and select, to use and download.” (93)

“What if artistic creation today could be compared to a collective sport, far from the classical mythology of the solitary effort? “It is the viewers who make the paintings,” Duchamp once said, an incomprehensible remark unless we connect it to his keen sense of an emerging culture of use, in which meaning is born of collaboration and negotiation between the artist and the one who comes to view the work.” (20)

“Appropriation is indeed the first stage of postproduction; the issue is no longer to fabricate an object, but to choose one among those that exist and to use or modify these according to a specific intention. Marcel Broodthaers said that “ Since Duchamp, the artist is the author of a definition” which is substituted for that of the objects he or she has chosen…If the process of appropriation has its roots in history, its narrative here will begin with the readymade, which represents its first conceptualized manifestation, considered in relation to the history of art. When Duchamp exhibits a manufactured object…as a work of the mind, he shifts the problematic of the “creative process” emphasizing the artist’s gaze brought to bare on an object instead of manual skill. He accesses that the act of choosing is enough to establish the artistic process, just as the act of fabricating, painting or sculpting does; to give a new idea to an object is already production. Duchamp thereby completes the definition of the term creation; to create is to insert an object into a new scenario, to consider it a character in a narrative. (25)

Here, Bourriaud hits upon one of the central themes of contemporary remixing; the curatorial and the selection process which informs many contemporary “postproduction” or found footage artworks. If we look at the major thrust of Christian Marclay’s found footage films, we observe that the emphasis is on the collection of materials rather than on their presentation. Additionally, the “artists gaze” here seems to mirror the idea of the “second look.” The artist’s “definition” of the artwork implies a kind of replacement of the original coding of the work or object which indicates the transformation made through the second look. Many contemporary modes of appropriation deal with constructing “archival interventions” in which features of the archive are reproduced to facilitate transformation in their groupings and combinations.