Essay by Peter R. Kalb
Reflecting on what he felt to be the replacement of the real by representation, Antonio Negri has described a crisis for politics and art: Democracy has floundered on the irredeemable corruption of representation while art has become similarly foreclosed from reality.1 Extending this point, Negri, with Michael Hardt, has recently asserted that one of the “most radical and far-reaching” accomplishments of the Arab Spring and Occupy Movements has been their “rejection of representation.”2 So liberated, “intellectuality and cooperation” break the confines of global capital and generate a surplus he defines as “art” and “revolution.”3 Philosopher and sometime-curator, Jean-Luc Nancy describes a similar predicament in his inquiry The Creation of the World, or Globalization. “It is in all respects not only reasonable, but also required by the vigor and rigor of thought to avoid recourse to representations: the future is precisely that which exceeds representations,” he writes.4 So distanced, Nancy’s future escapes the self-replicating bind in which, as Marx described it, bourgeois capitalism reduces all creativity to the mimetic duplication of “the world in its own image.”5 Whether it is possible to imagine, let alone produce, a society of such “nonrepresentative republics” is an open question, but one that repeated state failures from the catastrophes of Hurricane Katrina to the horrors in Syria have put before us with great urgency.6 My concern in this essay is the cost of rejecting representation in the pursuit of renewed forms of activist art and democracy. The increasing cynicism toward democratic structures in the West, and the dissipation of democracy movements in China in the 1990s and across North Africa since 2011, testifies to the practical challenge of fighting for democracy without fighting as strenuously for adequate means of representation. I would like to suggest, following Andrea Bowers’s example, that there are modes of representation both visual and political that can facilitate the “becoming common” of the multitude as Hardt and Negri describe new forms of responsive community building.7
Citizenship within the common is the product of “subjectivity produced through cooperation and communication that in turn produces new forms of cooperation and communication which in turn produce new subjectivity, and so forth.”8 Such self-generation, like Nancy’s “creation,” rests on the inventive and willful application of immaterial labor that constitutes the tool box of the commons central to both contemporary artistic and economic practices. Bowers’s photorealist drawings, staged and documentary-style video, and text-based books, posters, and installations suggest what meaning gleaned from the world might look like if informed by activist ethics and how representation as the tool of both art and democracy might be self-consciously and self-critically employed to reimagine society. Seen through the lens of her work, “becoming common” opens the door to representation that resists capitalist reproduction and responds to its two-fold capacity—true in politics as in aesthetics—to stand in for that which is and produce that which is becoming.9
At the 2004 Whitney Biennial, Bowers introduced her largest audience yet to her meticulously rendered photorealist drawings of feminist and anti-nuclear activism. Based on archival news photographs from the 1980s, these drawings were, as her recent work continues to be, rendered in a one-to-one scale relationship to their source. Thus, the size, style, and contents of the imagery refer to the mass-produced original even as the fine detail and the often large sheet of drawing paper on which they appear evoke the craft and materials of fine art. The drawings hung near Vieja Gloria (2003), her video documenting eco-activist John Quigley in the midst of a 71-day tree-sitting protest. Bowers’s two-channel video projection Non-Violent Civil Disobedience Training (NVCDT) (2003) concurrently presented at the Sara Meltzer Gallery offered lessons about the tactics and history of the anti-globalization movement. Despite adding significantly to an archive of activism, it would be a mistake to interpret Bowers’s art as simply signaling the blind spots of history. The work she exhibited in 2003 and 2004 are records of collective action but also forms of embodiment that identify representation as the meeting place of the aesthetic and political, the individual and the social, the mind and body.
Shortly before the Biennial, Bowers had discovered in drawing photographs a sensual practice that, like non-violent civil disobedience, treats the body as a political and representational tool. As Bowers has stated, the grueling process of hand-copying photographs had another very personal significance: “Of course there are many philosophical and art historical reasons for using this style.” But, she reflected, “it finally hit me…As a child it made sense to me to physically go through the process of recording information in order to be able to understand and recall it.”10 Photorealism as a specific means of recording information also has advantages useful for Bowers’s project. Unlike the mimetic line that seeks the contours and surfaces of its object and so binds, with great ambivalence, the representing artist to the represented body, photorealistic mimesis joins the artist to a pre-existing image. The body that fills the gaze of the traditional figurative painter has been eliminated, its corporality traded for the delimited materiality of a mechanical reproduction leaving nothing in front of the artist not already imaged. Although Bowers inherited the ambivalence at the root of photo-based practices such as photorealism or Pop and Appropriation, her drawing inserts an active body into the means of representation and links such creativity to the history of democratic activism.
“If there is such a thing as an ‘aesthetics of politics,’ it lies in a reconfiguration of the distribution of the common through political processes of subjectivation. Correspondingly, if there is a politics of aesthetics, it lies in the practices and modes of visibility of art that re-configure the fabric of sensory experience.” Jacques Rancière.11
One key to re-inventing representation as a generative process rather than a repetition compulsion lies in Jacques Rancière’s description of aesthetics and politics in which body, art, and the commons engage such that the perception and production of representation can enter into the conversation, rather than supplant it. In Dissensus, Rancière identifies aesthetics with distribution either of the common through society or as sensations through the body. Politics on the other hand is the production of modes of visibility—formal processes of making ideas, objects, emotions, or effects apparent, or social means of making subjects recognizable. The parallelism of Rancière’s comparison, by which the common circulates through society like sensations through the body, bases aesthetic and political power in the conjunction of sense determined by the intellect and perception obtained through the body, both of which take on significance through communication with others. Neither the political nor the aesthetic can be perceived without the other and each revolves around the ever-experiencing body within an ever-transforming commons. As Nancy, too, intimately conjoined the sense of the intellect with the sensations of the body, Rancière asserts the inseparability of that which is meaningful in the context of life with others and that which is sensed in one’s own body. In this configuration, the work of art, as defined as the relation between the political and the aesthetic within a single expression, holds significant power. With politics and aesthetics, individual and collective, mind and body so combined, modes of representation crafted in art can be imagined as bearing potential within aesthetic and political discourse, singular and communal experience, theory and practice. Representation in this case is not irredeemably compromised, but rather an indispensable tool for actualizing a politics of the commons and an art of social change.
The character of Bowers’s activist representation is clarified in NVCDT, one of the first of many videos in which the artist presented other people inventing forms of embodied representation and creating communities in common. The video introduces a class that discusses politics, ethics, and strategy, writes lists and diagrams, and acts out scenarios of safe and effective means of non-violence. In the course of viewing, however, it becomes apparent that, although the instructors are real, the students know far too little to be politically motivated activists and, in fact, they were dance students that Bowers hired to play the young activists. NVCDT is a video representation of a theatrical representation of nonviolent civil disobedience training—almost. Like the characters they represent, the dancers develop the political consciousness, sense of community, and practical skills of nonviolent civil disobedience. They cannot only represent others: Bowers created the conditions whereby the means of representation became a potential of that which they represent. The dancers, however, keep their potential as political actors unspent. Unlike an exertion of the force of violence that translates the potential into power and thus exhausts it, the immaterial labor we witness here and throughout Bowers’s oeuvre both actualizes itself and generates potential. We have representation that does not come close to absorbing the potential of that which it represents.
Since the mid-2000s, Bowers has explored sites where representational democracy is failing—specifically those touched by immigration and environmental policy—using representational devices that cross the artist/subject/audience divide much as NVCDT created a community out of the performers. The United States v. Tim DeChristopher (2010), a 16-minute single-channel video of climate activist Tim DeChristopher narrating the act of nonviolent civil disobedience he undertook to protect more than 20,000 acres of desert from oil prospectors, displays creative representational acts of both the activist and the artist. Bowers filmed DeChristopher outdoors on a cold afternoon describing his intervention at a Bureau of Land Management auction in the last days of the second Bush administration. His act was the successful bid, despite having no money or intention to purchase, for 13 parcels of public land valued at close to two million dollars. As DeChristopher won his final lot, authorities removed him from the auction on the suspicion that he was not the investor he appeared to be. At the time of the filming, DeChristopher faced 10 years in prison and a $750,000 fine for violating the Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Reform Act and falsely representing himself to the federal government. On July 26, 2011, he was sentenced to two years in prison, three years supervised probation, and a $10,000 fine. Meanwhile, the auction was investigated by the government and declared illegal for having neglected to complete proper environmental impact studies. Upon review, 11 of the parcels DeChristopher won were deemed too sensitive to be turned over to oil companies.
DeChristopher’s civil disobedience was a complex set of representations. Rather than take the expected position of outsider, he represented himself as an insider. DeChristopher entered the auction and began bidding, driving up prices only to let others purchase the lots. Soon he realized that such infiltration would be radical only if he challenged the logic that guided his appearance. So DeChristopher started winning bids until it became apparent that his actions—raising paddle 70 and acknowledging his intention to buy—were meaningful for their failure to properly signify. The intrusion of resistant meaning under the cover of normative actions transformed the event into nonsense, nullifying the results of the entire auction. Italian philosopher Paolo Virno describes innovation within the multitude in terms that correspond to DeChristopher’s act. “Creativity” he writes, “is actually subnormative: it manifests itself…in the lateral and inappropriate paths that happen to open themselves to us just as we are forcing ourselves to conform to a determined norm.”12 The United States v. Tim DeChristopher presents the confrontation of an individual highly aware of the norms he opposed discovering in the moment of encounter a way to use existing rules to journey in a new direction. Bowers does not let her protagonist occupy all our attention, however. Interrupting his narrative, she represents herself walking across exquisite vistas of the southwestern United States. After a few moments watching the changing skies and listening to the sounds of the desert, we see Bowers write a white number on a black chalkboard and hold it in front of the camera, obscuring our view with what we come to realize is the lot number of the landscape. Like DeChristopher, Bowers demonstrates the contingent nature of meaning and the power we possess to change it: the land in the video appears alternately as resource, nation, commodity, landscape, public space, matter, and object of desire.
Rancière describes the political and aesthetic fullness of artistic experience as a moment in which the individual achieves new perceptual capacities and the world appears as a new terrain held in common; it is, he concludes, a “pure instance of suspension.”13 As such art constitutes an opportunity to renegotiate the relationship between past and present and reveals, as does Nancy’s creation or Hardt and Negri’s becoming common, the potential to create that which could never be found and represented. While Rancière’s instant and Nancy’s creation might be described as pure, becoming common is decidedly not, nor is the history or community building Bowers engages. DeChristopher’s story, like the emphatic clarity of Bowers’s photorealism, clearly broadcasts the artist’s agenda, her impurity. However, it is in her commemoration of DeChristopher’s specific act of civil disobedience that one can see the linguistic strategy Bowers would use to activate the viewer in subsequent work. One watches The United States v. Tim DeChristopher with a sense of indignation at an obvious injustice, a strong desire to see the protagonist succeed, and a smile. Rather than stepping into the work as in most relational art, Bowers’s audience plays an active role from the outside, one illuminated by Virno’s analysis of humor. The comedy of DeChristopher's action was of course one constructed in speech, or more precisely, to follow Virno, in “[t]he éndoxa…the linguistic customs so embedded as to constitute the implicit presupposition of every type of reasoning,” that form “the grammar of a form of life.”14 DeChristopher took the grammar of capitalism and the customs of the auction “with the goal,” as Virno says of the joke, “[of] illustrating the questionable nature of the opinions lying beneath [its] discourses and actions.”15 With full knowledge of his surroundings, the joke teller, like DeChristopher, utters a statement that veers away from customary logic and thus implies options other than those that appear inevitable or natural. The joke is a “performative example of how the grammar of a form of life can be transformed,” Virno explains.16 To represent a joke as Bowers does in The United States v. Tim DeChristopher is to represent the process of social change. To make a joke, however, is to invite change and to ask others to share “the grave responsibility of refuting the éndoxa” and to create an active, or in this case an activist, community.17
So Bowers, who had begun representing activism in the 2000s, turned in the 2010s to telling jokes. They start small. Bowers made only one drawing of DeChristopher: It is based on a photograph of him wearing a shirt that reads: “I AM THE CARBON TAX.” At the same time, she began an ongoing series using stencils, decorative paper, and spray paint to create poster-size paintings of posters; many of them jokes. On a green pattern of neoclassical urns highlighted with yellow spray paint, pink and orange letters spell out a simple pun: “A commonwealth is when wealth is common.” A 1960s moderne floral pattern supports: “Unions: The people who brought you weekends” in red, white, and blue. The most suggestive slogan of the group, “When we’re screwed we multiply,” initially from the 1930s labor movement and adopted in the 1970s by the women’s movement, is written in red, pink, blue, violet, and yellow over another floral motif, this time in yellow, black, blue, and violet. These paintings invoke the history of protest Bowers has mined for her drawings and likewise prompt indignation and political commitment—as jokes, however, they ask for something else. Bowers’s posters require a public to confirm the rules and customs on which their humor is based and acknowledge that the joke is a joke, that it disrupts those norms and proposes others. These works, like the genre of humorous political art from the Guerilla Girls to Hennessey Youngman, join the three positions of subject embedded in society and represented in the work, artist, or speaker able to move laterally in the face of expectations, and audience able to recognize both. Importantly, and distinct from traditions of left-wing documentary art, the viewers’ participation is not based on taking up a position with regard to the subject of the work of art; it is a product of the exchange with it. It is hoped that viewers of The United States v. Tim DeChristopher will rally to his cause, but the efficacy of the work is not dependent upon that. The viewer occupies his or her own position and laughter—of pleasure or discomfort—signals the production of a relationship, a step to becoming common, that is independent of one’s perspective on the content of the joke/art. Recasting a feminist insight, the social efficacy of the joke/art rests not on the utterance, but on the ability to speak and the laughter it inspires.18
In her recent show at Capitain-Petzel, Berlin, entitled “Cultivating the Courage to Sin,” Bowers shuffled the deck in a sculptural joke that layered representations of piracy, eco-activism, and radical feminism. Enlisting activist Travis Jochimsen, with whom she has built several sculptural variations of tree-sitting platforms, Bowers created an oversized version outfitted with mast and sails, and flying a Jolly Roger: Radical Feminist Pirate Ship Tree Sitting Platform (2013). Unlike the earlier tree-sitting sculptures, this one flirts with a cynicism largely absent in Bowers’s oeuvre. The entire project risks eliding activism with boyhood fantasy and engaged politics with Temporary Autonomous Zones. However, it also offered an opportunity to combine a variety of representations of art, activism, and appropriation. The idea of the platform qua pirate ship was Jochimsen’s and the idea of asking him in the first place was that of Bowers’s New York gallerist, Andrew Kreps. Upon deciding she was willing to act out other people’s ideas and depict other people’s fantasies, Bowers, like DeChristopher, found in her new circumstances the potential for a joke. Predictably irritated by the initial humor—tree house as pirate ship was too banal, too expected, too male—Bowers turned to a short memoir by radical Catholic theologian Mary Daly. There she discovered a more radical humor in the scenario. Daly too had embraced the pirate as an apt analogy for the activist and a suitably contrarian proposition adequate to describe the experience of being a feminist in the twentieth-century west. “Women,” Daly wrote, “are Pirates in a phallocentric society,” who must “Plunder—that is, righteously rip off—gems of knowledge that the patriarchs have stolen from us [and] Smuggle back to other women our Plundered treasures.”19 Waving taut from the mast of the monstrous pirate tree-sitting platform-vessel is a mainsail Bowers emblazoned with Daly’s words, effectively rerouting the almost overwhelming machismo that the work initially projects. The éndoxa is thus distorted by the brazen politics of feminist pirates on the patriarchal sea and the viewer is set adrift in a competing network of representations that, like the dancers in NVCDT or Tim DeChristopher at the auction, reflect their sources, but simultaneously project new identities for themselves and new perspectives from which to imagine the world around them. Standing before a sculpture of a ship without a sea and a platform without a tree, Bowers’s work enlists representation as a catalyst for engaging others to laugh and be enraged by the exaggerations and insufficiencies of life as it is. Such art-making bound to life as it is and able to create communities and contexts yet to be imaged or imagined exemplifies a mode of representation fit for democracy.
Peter R. Kalb
Peter R. Kalb is the author of Art Since 1980: Charting the Contemporary (New York: Pearson and London: Laurence King, 2013). He is the Cynthia L. and Theodore S. Berenson Associate Professor of Contemporary Art at Brandeis University and currently serves as the Boston-based corresponding editor for Art in America
 Cesare Casarino and Antono Negri, In Praise of the Common: A Conversation on Philosophy and Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2008), 104 and Antonio Negri, Art and Multitude, trans. Ed Emery (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2011), vii-xiii.
 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Declaration (Argo Navis Author Services, 2012), 7.
 Negri, Art and Multitude, 94.
 Jean-Luc Nancy, The Creation of the World or Globalization (Albany: State University of New York, 2007), 50.
 Karl Marx, Communist Manifesto in Frederic L. Bender ed. Karl Marx: The Communist Manifesto A Norton Critical Edition (New York: Norton, 1988), 59.
 On “nonrepresentative republics” see Paolo Virno, Multitude: Between Innovation and Negation (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2008), 51.
 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), 114.
 Hardt and Negri, Multitude, 189.
 Louis Marin, On Representation (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 352.
 Andrea Bowers and Catherine Opie, Between Artists: Andrea Bowers and Catherine Opie (New York: Art Resources Transfer 2008), 33.
 Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics (New York: Continuum, 2010), 140.
 Virno, 73-74.
 Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics trans. Gabriel Rockhill (New York: Continuum, 2004), 24.
 Virno, 94.
 Ibid, 96.
 See Jo Anna Isaak, Feminism and Contemporary Art: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Laughter (New York: Routledge, 1996).
 Mary Daly, “Sin Big,” The New Yorker, 26 February 1996, 76.