Expropriation as Art Practice

David A. J. Murrieta Flores
In the White Paper series (2014–2016), Italian artist Adelita Husni-Bey questions the relationship between society, the state, and property by means of a dialectical process that involves communities affected by urban planning. The result is not only a curatorial networking of different peoples’ struggles regarding property rights at an international level (Egypt, the Netherlands, Spain), but also legal documents drafted at public meetings, giving concrete shape to a politics practised beyond state institutions.

After Enlightenment philosopher John Locke referred to the human psyche as a “white paper, void of all characters”1 1 - John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (London: Penguin, 1997), 109.in 1689, he made an analogous argument for his natural history of property, in which labour effected upon the blank tablet of a world gifted by God to all men was what granted any individual the right to a land and its fruits. To fill the “white paper” meant not only to acquire consciousness (a self) but also to appropriate that self and, on that basis, to appropriate nature through the extension of the self in work. Thus, what Husni-Bey is mobilizing in this series of works is fundamentally connected to appropriation, although the concept has often been used to mean, more generally, “reproduction,” sometimes reduced through the art-historical lens to “an art-world movement, a style, or a strategy.”2 2 - John Welchman, Art After Appropriation (New York: Routledge, 2013), 28. Wider perspectives have rightly hinted at the root of the question being in theories of property, but rarely have they developed this argument further, leading to positions in which another meaning of appropriation is simply “theft” or a vanguard detonation of meanings and criticism of the concept of authorship.3 3 - All of these ideas are contained in books and articles whose authors discuss the issue of appropriation in a theoretical framework. Key texts include: Marcus Boon, In Praise of Copying (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013); Dominic Pettman, “A Break in Transmission: Art, Appropriation and Accumulation,” Genre: Forms of Discourse and Culture, vol. 34, no. 3–4 (2001); Kenneth Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing: Managing Writing in the Digital Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011); and Sherrie Levine (October Files), ed. Howard Singerman (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2018). Thus, my purpose in this essay is to make a possible outline for the exploration of appropriation as an art-historical concept that cannot be dissociated from its economic and political background with regard to property. This idea has already been explored by openly political artists, many of whose practices originally follow those developed by the Situationist International (SI), which deployed détournement (diversion) as an appropriation technique that reveals the close relationship between aesthetics and politics in contemporary art practices of this nature.

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This article also appears in the issue 97 - Appropriation
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