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Dossier | Participation for Sale!

  • Goldin+Senneby, discussion avec K.D., l'auteur de | talk with K.D., author of Looking for Headless, 28th Bienal de São Paulo, 2008. Photo : Autumn Sonnichsen
  • Goldin+Senneby, lecture publique de | public reading of Looking for Headless par | by K.D., Royal Art Academy Library, Stockholm, 2007. Photo : Emma Kihl

Participation for Sale!
By Vanessa Morisset

South Kensington, Christie’s, Sale No. 5537, lot 36, March 25, 2010. A work is for sale. Estimated at between £5,000 and £7,000, it sells for £5,625. Not very expensive for a work of art, but about right for a conceptual work which, moreover, is not all that old. In truth, it still does not quite exist. The process of its creation has just begun.

Fiction on Auction is a work by Goldin+Senneby, (1) two Swedish artists who have been collaborating since 2004. It consists of the sale, to some future owner, of a character-role in a novel-in-progress (written in collaboration with a writer mysteriously named K.D.). Entitled Looking for Headless, (2) this novel blends real facts and people — including the artists themselves — with fictional elements. What the collector of Fiction on Auction purchases is the promise of adventure by proxy.

But the absence of materiality is not what makes the work original. A lot of immateriality has been sold since Yves Klein and his sales of “Zones of immaterial pictorial sensibility” at the beginning of the 1960s. Here, the project distinguishes itself more by the artists themselves organizing its first sale at auction. In choosing this kind of transaction, Goldin+Senneby allude to the relationship between art and money as it has evolved since the end of the 1990s. It calls to mind the record prices attained for Damien Hirst’s work, the takeover of auction houses by billionaire collectors (notably the purchase of Christie’s by François Pinault in 1998), and suspicions over fictional sales being used to drive up prices...

Goldin+Senneby are in fact interested in the world of money and its recent evolution. Looking for Headless refers to the theories of Georges Bataille, advocated in the magazine Acéphale and developed in La Part maudite (1949) (translated into English as The Accursed Share), concerning the possibility of a post-monetary society. It alludes to the phenomenon of the Eurodollar as it arose in the 1950s, when Soviet Bloc countries withdrew their dollar holdings from American banks and placed them, for the most part, in Eastern Europe. For the U.S. and its allies, these deposits constituted a quite singular reserve of dollars. By appearing in their accounts without being accessible, the deposits became a kind of ghost money. Intheir novel, Goldin+Senneby make a parallel between the Eurodollar and offshore companies: “Offshore money — it’s not offshore money but xeno-money. The eurodollar is xeno-money, money outside. It’s not anywhere, it’s a legal fiction. The idea that there’s a real economy of which offshore belongs is a fiction: economy is a fiction.” (3) Looking for Headless highlights this fictional aspect of the economy by recounting how Goldin+Senneby are implicated in a false investigation of an offshore company, Headless Ltd., based in the Bahamas. In doing so, they immerse the figure of the artist inthe world of money, as it becomes unreal. Selling a role in the novel at an auction is therefore the height of this enterprise.

Art has nearly always been tied to money through a patron and commissions. From this perspective, Goldin+Senneby situate themselves in a long line of artists protected by rich art-lovers, and could be considered a contemporary incarnation of the economic workings of a world in which, henceforth, even capitalists are wild about conceptual art.

Yet this would be forgetting that their work reacts to a more immediate context: that of the appraisal of relational aesthetics, which utilized participation in order to elude the customary relationships between money and art. According to Nicolas Bourriaud, artists under the rubric of relational aesthetics indeed managed to clarify that the art trade considers only one aspect of a work, which, increasingly, is not separate from it. In a world of pure economics, a work of art becomes the highest form of merchandise, (4) measured only in terms of its exchange value. Yet, when one envisages art in this way, one dismisses its precise nature as art: “But what exactly are we talking about? About the art object, not about artistic practice, about the work as it is assumed by the general economy, and not its own economy.” (5) Bourriaud distinguishes the general economy from the specific economy of the work, since it is almost in spite of itself that the work is part of the general economy. It is the dealer who primarily determines its price, or a sale by auction can be arranged among collectors. And yet the art championed by Bourriaud tries to denounce this confusion by avoiding any reification of the artistic process and by returning to a primitive form of exchange rooted in sociability. As “Art represents a barter activity that can be regulated by any currency or any ‘common substance,’ it is the division of meaning the wild state—an exchange whose form is defined by that of the object itself, before being so defined by definitions foreign to it.” (6)

In the case of Fiction on Auction, not only are the artists selling something, but they themselves are also organizing the auction. This kind of transaction is even constitutive of the work, as its title suggests. Contrary to the works championed by Bourriaud, this has no specific economy to distinguish it from the general economy. It allies itself with relational aesthetics in the sense that its content consists of creating ties between people, but distances itself by acting within the very heart of the art market.

Does this mean that Goldin+Senneby belong to a generation of artists that shamelessly participate in the art world and accept it as is? Or is Fiction on Auction more ambiguous than it seems? What position is expressed by this work in regard to the contemporary art business?

If one were inclined to cynicism, one might consider that Bourriaud proposed a utopian kind of art, one with a social and humanitarian -vocation — the soup distributed by Rirkrit Tiravanija, the hammocks installed by Orozco — that has since been taken up again by the market. Relational aesthetics could resist this no more than other seemingly less subversive forms of art. Tiravanija’s works are sold as installations or videos, and those of Gonzalez-Torres attain very high prices at Christie’s...

Certain authors go further in their criticism, denouncing as a snare the utopianism of artists associated with relational aesthetics. For Claire Bishop, for example, Rirkrit Tiravanija is “one of the most established, influential, and omnipresent figures on the international art circuit” and his work, in naively transposing the problematics of the 1970s to today’s globalized economy, supports the dominant economic model rather than challenging it. (7)

Accordingly, in these conditions, why wouldn’t artists choose to forge ahead and bring their works to auction themselves — at Christie’s or elsewhere — since this is their best hope?

Recently, two French artists — Olive Martin and Patrick Bernier — organized, in San Francisco and Paris successively, a performance in which the creation of a work depended on an auction. Led by a professional American auctioneer, the public was invited to bid in order to help move the work the virtual distance from San Francisco to Paris in the first performance, and the reverse in the second, by passing through the IP addresses of a series of computers situated between the two cities. Traceroute chant was successful and gave rise to a video edition of the performance predicated on the virtual routing reaching its goal via the bids. (8) For this work, as with Fiction on Auction, the auction was a determining factor: the purchase allowed the public to participate in the creation. In Traceroute chant, each bidder was an actor in the performance and increased its chances of success. Similarly, in Fiction on Auction, the personality of the buyer would shape the last pages of the novel. If in the 1960s audience participation revealed a desire to abolish the division between artists and non-artists, between life and art, today such participation has become the prerogative of patrons who dream of being as close as possible to artists.

Nonetheless, these works do not quite seem the kind to delight major collectors. The bids in Traceroute chant were sufficiently low to allow anyone to take part (opening at $20, bidding in increments of $5, each participant was able to purchase the work for the price he or she offered), while the final price was calculated to cover the costs of production. This piece revives the participatory utopia of the 1970s in which participants made contributions according to their means. It can also be read as part of the tradition of the Readymade appartiennent à tout le monde® (1987-1993) by Philippe Thomas, an agency that interferes with the art market by delivering readymade works to strangers who become their authors.

As for Fiction on Auction, it manifests great irony; first and foremost by the page announcing the sale in Christie’s catalogue, which represented the work while the pages of the novel were still to be written: publicity took the place of the work, while the buyer knowingly let himself be manipulated. In addition, the authors created a promotional video, which, despite being presented on Christie’s site, could only have been fake. This was clear in the overabundance of superlatives and the insistence with which the work was presented as a “fantastic opportunity” to prove oneself as a true art lover. (9) But this “promotional campaign” was — in reality — a trap for major collectors, particularly for those coming from multinationals. Fiction on Auction suggests a means for art to maintain its critical independence from the economy, responding in some way to the question raised by Jean-Pierre Cometti in 2002 in an article entitled “A Run for the Money: Comments on Art, Exchange and Value,” in which he sought to know “whether art is so economically and culturally loaded – in this respect economic and cultural stakes are on a par — that art has no critical function left to exert.” (10) For Cometti, economic investments in art, patronage, even the “culture of enterprise” favours a return to hedonistic aesthetics, through, for example, the theme of beauty. From this point of view, the chance for a storybook adventure by proxy offered by Fiction on Auction would place the work in the hedonistic camp and would accommodate itself fairly well to the culture of enterprise. But the content developed by Goldin+Senneby on fiscal evasion, offshore companies, and money as fiction does not constitute a favourable context for billionaires! One has difficulty imagining, in fact, why some business managers would want to appear in an, even fictional, investigation that involves crime and financial scandal. This, finally, is where the work’s irony resides: even if the promotional video ends with a snapping of fingers and an enthusiastic “you can get it, just like that!” few major collectors could afford to.

The author would like to offer her sincere thanks to the artists Goldin+Senneby and Léna Monnier, curator at the Kadist Foundation, Paris, for their generous collaboration.

[Translated from the French by Peter Dubé]

NOTES
(1) www.goldinsenneby.com
(2) The title is in homage to Georges Bataille and his 1930s magazine Acéphale (see below).
(3) Goldin+Senneby, Looking for Headless, (Goldin+Senneby 2007-2008), 59-60, PDF accessed June 23, 2011, www.alphagalileo.org/ViewItem.aspx?ItemId=85388&CultureCode=en.
(4) Even if Bourriaud does not cite it, one might think here of Adam Smith’s diamond in “On the Origin and Use of Money” in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), Book 1, Chapter 4: “Nothing is more useful than water: but it will purchase scarce anything; scarce anything can be had in exchange for it. A diamond, on the contrary, has scarce any value in use; but a very great quantity of other goods may frequently be had in exchange for it.”
(5) Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, trans. Simon Pleasance and Fronza Woods with the participation of Mathieu Copeland (Dijon: Les Presses du reel, 2002), 42.
(6) Ibid.
(7) Claire Bishop, “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” October 110 (Fall 2004): 58.
(8) This was the case with the first performance in San Francisco, May 13, 2010, but not with the one that took place in Paris on March 16, 2010. For more details, see the Kadist Foundation website: www.kadist.org.
(9) www.christies.com/features/2010-march-goldin-senneby-fiction-on-auction-...
(10) Article published in Parachute 106 (April-May-June 2002): 71-85.

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