Boris Achour, actions-peu, Paris, 1993-1997.
photo : © Boris Achour, permission | courtesy Galerie Georges-Philippe & Nathalie Vallois, Paris

The Joker, Sabotage Incarnate

Drawn from a deck of cards, the Joker is that saboteur and buffoon that can adopt whatever value its player chooses to give it. It is therefore a potential card, a perplexing figure that doesn’t belong in the hierarchy of numbered and face cards, ensuring a disruption in the choices that determine the game. The Joker represents the ambivalent coexistence of an unexpected solution for some and an unlucky hindrance for others. The Joker sabotages the game because he has no intrinsic value, because he doesn’t follow the rules that govern the other figures, which he reconfigures. He stands at once within and outside a rational system that tolerates his irrational presence nonetheless. He is an integrated renegade.

In the second instalment of the recent blockbuster Batman series, The Dark Knight, the Joker is that parasitical counterpart whose existence is inextricably tied to his positive alter ego, Batman. The bacterial Joker finds somatic and psychic support in the culture defining the superhero, which he sabotages at every point, a contamination that spreads ­inexorably throughout the city and community of Gotham, affecting its spaces, its monuments, its imagination. Even when eradicated, the parasitical aura hovers still in unsuspected replications, extending suspicion to that which had been viable, healthy, and beyond suspicion, like the character of Harvey Two-Face. The parasitical sabotage dissolves the original Manichean configuration and overflows the framework of the cinematic narrative. The Joker perforates the medium and the IMAX screen by becoming the commercializing hero and spokesperson for megaproductions,1 1 - On this topic, see the development of websites involved in marketing the film, among them whysoserious. gaining both publicity space and mind share among spectators at the expense of the superhero himself, reduced to a title. He spoils everything, upstages everyone, on and off screen, disrupts and reconfigures the system like a deck of cards. In both the metaphysical and numeric sense, he is a play on values.


The idiosyncrasy of sabotage is its action in terms of value. It is an ­essentially transitive act that deflects and rebounds on surrounding objects. While it often suggests a political and illegal rebellion against the Law, many visual artists testify to a more deeply rooted tendency toward breaking the Rule, much more powerful, elastic, and unforgiving. Sabotage, then, is directed less at the object than the subject.

Carsten Höller, Le laboratoire du doute | The Laboratory of Doubt, Anvers, 1999.
photos : permission | courtesy Air de Paris, Paris 

In constructing his work, Maurizio Cattelan’s initial intention is to highlight the inevitable misunderstanding it provokes, “because people can do whatever they want with it.”2 2 - Interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, Yokohama, September 2001. Carsten Höller, for his part, with his famed The Laboratory of Doubt, disconnects the world of values from that of certainty to give free rein to an informal and unabashed perplexity. Ceal Floyer works with his dissatisfaction and vulnerability to turn his ­scepticism into art while pushing the situation to its limits.3 3 - “Have Trojan Horse, Will Travel: A Conversation between Jonathan Watkins and Ceal Floyer,” Ceal Floyer (Birmingham: Ikon Gallery, 2001). Didier Faustino named his first architecture agency LAPS — Laboratory of Architecture, Performance and Sabotage — and subverted previous commissions from public ­personalities and organizations by ruthlessly highlighting their failings. Norma Jeanne is an artist who doesn’t exist while generating ­confusion between a hollow identity and all too real artwork. In these ­various practices, sabotage is not situated in the created or denounced object, but in the ruin of a method that emerges broadened through acceptance of the notion of non-confidence and the experience of ­fragility and of uncertainty.

The artistic joker is less a production than a set of motivations and extended procedures. In many of these works, the art is not the locus of created objects but that of experience, of a peculiar, paradoxical, and inadequate experience of the current world, a state of vulnerability. The impossibility of giving exclusive form to these feelings and ideas extends the creative play to a reflexive territory, to an extended conversation, loosened from its materialization and material constraints. How does one embody dissatisfaction? How does one inform doubt, a troubled mind, irritation, the feeling of not being able to do or of not doing properly? If many accomplished productions contain a significant critical component — a sign of the work’s quality in our society and in our approach to art — and questions our value systems, the anticipation and integration of this critical component at the very level of the artist’s methods (Agnès Thurnauer’s bien faite, mal faite, pas faite — “Well done, badly done, not done” —, 2004) constitute a sweet though ­nonetheless inexorable sabotage, all the more accomplished and innovative with respect to the trans-formation of modes of thought and practice in contemporary art.

Transfers, Assimilations 

A retrospective glance at the twentieth century reveals the diversity and complexity of artists’ motivational structures and forms of engagement, of their roles, the construction, in short, of the artist-being. Modernism considered method a defined, even predefined action plan that ­federated individualities around political, social, metaphysical convictions in a ­progressive time and space. The manifesto set the keynote to ­procedures intended to counter the irruption of uncertainty, the inexplicable, the ­inadequate and insufficient: doubt and uncertainty were out of the question. From the postmodern, we’ve inherited a culture and art world coextensive with the capitalist economy, where massive, spectacular consumerization, ideally, leaves no place for defects and failure. While uncertain times have always been around, artists could not exhibit, claim, or use their vulnerability, incompetence, or doubt in the creative process. Non-reliability is a judgement reserved for others and constitutes an unfavourable critique.

Mark Lewis, Cold Morning, vidéo, 2009.
photo : permission de l’artiste | courtesy of the artist & Monte Clark Gallery, Vancouver, Clark & Faria, Toronto
& galerie serge le borgne, Paris

Today, in “post-post” art,4 4 - Yves Michaud, L’art à l’état gazeux (Paris: Stock, 2003). the enemies have fallen and are no longer identifiable (teleology takes a back seat), the artist’s political involvement — at least visual artists’ — has regressed substantially, and aesthetics, dispersed and generalized in the totality of our existences, is no longer the chief prize in the dog fight. Because it is no longer ­possible to confront or conceive of society without being part of it, because one’s everyday mini-ideals and the assumption of particular liberties have replaced mass revolutions, the conflicts that were once expressed “openly,” along with redemptive visions and involvements that each ­person could imagine and create, are now integrated and interiorized in the modes of operation and very development of the works produced by recent ­generations of visual artists. Because “evil” is everywhere, and because, contrary to Dan Graham and Hans Haacke, one can no longer propose forms that both reflect and denounce the real, the more effective sabotage isn’t that which targets an invisible, obsolete enemy, devoid of any meaning and reality — society, an opposing party, an ideology, Big Brother — but that which hinders, irritates, and impacts the nature of relationships that govern this society. . . the Joker card.

Pointless, Mutants 

Methodological sabotage, altering and questioning one’s own capacity for judgement, action, and appreciation, adds a layer of immaterial ­production to art production, in terms of objects, installations, ­various media and actions, documents, in terms relationships to the world ­materialized as form. Visually, perceptibly, nothing has changed. Also, because one cannot forcibly inform the formless, most of the works, like those on doubt by Höller,5 5 - Recall the artist’s own admission of doubt about “doubt,” a word used for lack of a better. issue from a minimal aesthetic — his car as assisted ­readymade6 6 - The term “assisted readymade” is taken from a talk given by Marcel Duchamp at the New York Museum of Modern Art during a symposium organized as part of the exhibition, “The Art of Assemblage,” in 1961. The transcript of this talk is available in a collection of Duchamp’s writings, Duchamp du signe (Paris: Flammarion, 1994).  — or even from no aesthetic at all, for lack of being ­producible, remaining in a project stage, an impossible wish, existing only in the artists’ conversations, a dolce utopia. Some, like Kendell Geers, Kader Attia, Laurent Grasso, or Wang Du, work affirmatively on doubt and the general paranoia generated by the media, the clash of cultures, beliefs, or science and technology (the Ideologies), and produce highly visual works, dense and environmental, with a personal and singular aesthetic that matches the image of the general sabotage being decried. Others, like Boris Achour and his actions-peu (1993-97), Mircea Cantor, Martin Creed, or Mark Lewis in his latest productions, prefer to work with assumed doubt, indecision, and non-resolve on generalized affirmations.

These works all share this thin, evanescent, porous layer, this precipice of the signifier, added to the countless other usually preexisting and ­detectable signifying layers of contemporary artwork — materials, ­context, operation, rapport with the spectator —, one that, in the ­experience afforded others, reveals mechanisms motivated neither by the quest for an aesthetic, nor by the demands of another (whether an institution or an individual), nor by the influence of place, history, or defined context, but by the vulnerability and non-confidence experienced by an irreducible individuality — here, the artist. Sabotage induces a powerfully transitive and operational realism that extends the real with a schizophrenic and mutant double. To employ a neologism, it “perplexifies” the real. A mutant7 7 - The term “mutant” is here adopted by extension from Marc-Olivier Wahler’s considerations in “Le réel: combien de couches?,” Fresh Theorie (Paris: Léo Scheer, 2007). is that object or person that would seem to be indistinguishable from others, but that nonetheless, once identified, engenders confusion by appearing completely other, if not antagonistic. Methodical sabotage is a mutant work plan that leads to mutant art, the layer of uncertainty, of the badly-done, of the degraded constituting at once the work’s fragility and its disruptive power. Loris Gréaud proposes hypperrealistic ErsatZ of his work, a mutant image that replaces and destroys all other existing images documenting the production: nothing has changed, yet everything has. Mathieu Laurette mingles with his subjects in a supermarket, filling carts like everyone else, though only with “satisfied-or-your-money-back” products, thus beating the system at its own game by driving it toward loss (Money-Back Products, 1993-2001).

Maurizio Cattelan, Frank & Jamie, 2002.
photo : permission | courtesy Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, Paris

In the 1970s many art practices, like those of Robert Barry, Robert Irwin, or the Art & Language group, tended toward subversive interrogations that drew their productions into dispersed or immaterial systems, often simply framed (and thus assimilated) by their institutional environment. The transformation in the prevailing visuality of the time still has an aesthetic and political influence on art practices today. The invalidation of the beneficial and materially creative art project steers artists toward practices that extend the defectability of the visible and practicable, a principle of non-confidence once again. Those who wish to avoid the spectacle and the commodification of art and aesthetics, who wish to disengage from cultural self-assurance, can no longer propose a project wholly amenable to commercial mediatization, to its transport from white cube to biennial and from biennial to white cube. In the all-encompassing “global empire,” an affirmation, a progress, is applied to all, is addressed to the mass community without individual distinction, whereas a doubt, an irritation, a dissatisfaction, is entrusted, and breaks the uniform collectivity to the benefit of the individualities that make it up. Methodological sabotage hinders the cultural and public mission of the museum as a showcase for art as object for consumption,8 8 - One may recall all the art practices that have taken “exhibitions” and particularly the “institutional context” as sole medium since the 1960s, like those of Robert Barry, Marcel Broodthaers, Ben or Bethan Huws, sometimes attempting to bring down the whole program. one that can be immediately exploited as an experience or knowledge.

Disruption, Serendipity 

With the mechanical reproducibility of the artwork and the flooding of the real by art, or of art by the real, the sense of an aura conceived as unique, perceptible distance was lost. A second aura, not that of art but of ­aesthetics, more frequently and clearly identified in recent years, has made its appearance, by multiplying not the perceptible distances, but the points of view from which the distances were made perceptible. Sabotage as discussed here, then, can be seen as a set of extended methods that degrade that youthful though incredibly powerful, alienating aura of ­aesthetics. In sabotaging their modes of work, of perceiving and creating the world — in disappearing —, artists today are creating less an aesthetics of forms than a play on states of mind, a state of serendipity, that is, the creative exploitation of the unknown, with the only acknowledged faults being those of the sudden and unpredictable, of the fears and doubts related to this exotic unknown, other and profoundly other, inalienable by our codes of mass representation and communication.9 9 - These relationships between the spectacular and the everyday are the theme of the 2009 Biennale de Lyon curated by Hou Hanru, The Spectacle of the Everyday.

[Translated from the French by Ron Ross]

Boris Achour, Carsten Höller, Thibault Carles
This article also appears in the issue 68 - Sabotage

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