Kerstin Stakemeier

Crisis and Materiality in Art
On the Becoming of Form and Digitality

PDF, 13 Seiten

Against all earlier hopes, the survival of mankind in and after the modern industrial age has turned out not to be automatable. On the contrary, it entirely depends on the continued active restoration of its material living conditions. Gilbert Simondon describes this connection between humans and their machines in the 1950s in On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects as a tragically truncated, restricted, and limiting way of living for both because, “man’s alienation vis à vis the machine isn’t only socio-economic, but also has a psycho-physiological sense; the machine no longer expands the image of the body, whether for the worker or for those who own the machine.” In machines, humankind’s fatal self-restraint manifests itself. In humankind, the creation of the machine stabilises itself as a border of his/her own body. This brings about a relationship of continued reciprocal curtailment and scarcity. For Simondon, alienation is therefore not the result of machinery, but rather the outcome of the continual restraints of its (and therefore also humans’) “margin of indetermination.” This “margin of indetermination” signifies the expanded potential that still corresponds to each technical object in its development, an early ambiguity of its possible modes of existing, an open range of applications that, over the course of its completion for industrial production, is perpetually narrowed and sharpened. It is aimed at exactly that function that the object should henceforth fulfil in the manufacturing process. And to ensure this function, all other possible modes of existence of this object are systematically excluded. From Simondon’s perspective, the continued industrial division of labour is thus not only limited to, as Karl Marx described it, subjects’ abilities to repetitively fulfil the – when seen individually – senseless steps of a procedure, but how this limitation of technical objects also systematically prevents a meaningful physical bond to them.

Machines therefore only appear in the industrialised world as either “simple assemblies of material,” “that are quite without true meaning and that only provide utility,” or it “assumes that these objects are robots that harbour intentions hostile to man.” The self-induced restraint within this system returns as a threat of an non absorbable potential, as fear of the machine’s reverberations. In its fear of the malevolent robot, the outsourced “margin of indetermination” of technical objects, appears to endanger humankind through a potential in the machine that she/he no longer comprehends. Therefore, it’s not least the limitation on functionality that induces the ongoing crisis-proneness of this functionality. Because through this restriction no “margin of indetermination” remains that would allow humankind to operate with technical objects beyond labour. In labour, humans like machines, are rationalised into an irrational relation.

In the historical overview, crises of this (self)enforced functionalism are not the exceptions, but the rule of the modern world. On a global scale, there has still not been a crisis-free time, and even where the perspective is restricted to an impossible snippet of the North-Western, formally industrialised nations, general prosperity as an ideology itself remains the exception. Crisis is the continual threat to a norm constructed from its oppression, displacement, and deferral. The following text is about crisis-proneness as a standard, continuous form and the material dynamic of our contemporary life, connecting the present propensity towards New Materialisms and the ongoing financialised crisis of global capital, which began in 2008. Art takes on a special role in this context. In art, the figure of the restricted and menacing technology returns in converted form. Because art poses questions about the “margin of indetermination” of technical objects anew.

A Digital Now

Global capitalism’s continuous form of financialised crisis that came to light in 2008 consists not least of a string of materialisations of social relations. In a way, “crisis” itself is not least a term characterizing the termination of seemingly frictionless functional social contexts and processes of mediation, for the visualisation of economic relations as social ones, and the materialisation of them in their failure. More broadly, this applies to a crisis that marks the fatal and structural failure of a development in which, since the late 1990s, increasing attempts were made to emancipate industrial profit margins from (material) labour through a relocation of industrial resources to the finance market. Like Costas Lapavitsas and others have shown, companies founded their own banks, operated as banks themselves, and thus financialised their mode of existence, where henceforth material production was only a minor subdomain.

The figure of the “tendency of the rate of profit to fall” as already envisaged by Karl Marx, is a trend in a progressive technologisation of capitalist production. With this term, Marx identified the process of the technical intensification of production necessary for profit maximisation, which uses human work less and less. Marx also claims that it is this act of making mechanical production more efficient through machines themselves that leads to capital’s perpetual propensity towards crisis, because a surplus value can only be attained though the expenditure of human labour. It’s indeed this relationship between labour and profit that was believed to be overcome in financialisation through what Lapavitsas calls the ideology of “profiting without producing.” But the notion of what Marx describes as a continually expanding and specialising differentiation of labour in industry returns in Simondon, as described earlier, as an expanded theory of psycho-biological alienation, which wasn’t overcome through the financialisation of capital, but only fatally circumvented.

The functionalisation of technical objects presented by Simondon shifted from restricting the functionalist utilisation of people and machines in industry to an apparent subtraction of people from this equation. While it needed human and machinic tools prepared to functions alongside one another in industrial production, the drastic expansion of the financial markets brought about new “montages (assemblages) of matter” and a new “robot”: the modern nightmare of fully-automated production. This vision, according to which machines conspire against their operators, returned in the bursts of digitalisation that accompanied financialisation in the 1990s as nightmare of humans’ exclusion from the “margin of indetermination” opened in this progression: as a machine whose functional limitation excludes humans themselves as a dysfunctional “margin of indetermination.” In the 2000s, the financialised ideology of a fully-digitalised capital completed this movement to nightmare, in which the dissonance between humans’ material lives and the digital functionalism of their machines, as Maurizio Lazzarato describes them, became omnipresent material. “During the finical crisis, machines failed to provide for any measure of self-deregulation (ninety percent of share price valuations are automatically generated). On the contrary, their automation often amplified the disequilibrium.” The material ramifications of this digitalised valuation crisis took place amid human life.

Two notions assumed by Marx have therefore returned in the present in a new form. First and foremost, the continuous financialisation of capital since the 1990 wasn’t exactly based on an expanded technicisation of production, but on the fundamental digitalisation, not only of production, but above all its entities of distribution and valuation. The focus shifted from the production of goods to their mediation. The crisis resulting from this mediation cannot be intercepted within a further intensification of this digitalisation. Instead, the appearances of digitalization as financialisation produced a social opposition between the reproduction of material production (the importance of individual lives) on one hand and the reproduction of (financialised) capital (the digital measure of value) on the other. This contrast concretely returns in the financialised crisis as a loss of the standard of value: financialised and material developments brutally clash. The digital value production and analogue loss of value, robots and humans, no longer appeared to be confined to the same functional logic. The digital unleashing of automatisation described in the citation by Lazzarato, compels humans to redefine the “modes of existence of technical objects.” Digitally carried to the extremes, this functionalism maximised the psycho-physiological alienation of humankind.

Enduring Crisis

It appears today that the paradigm shift demanded by such a crisis remains unlocatable – thus the loss of standard retaliates against the subject herself. Franco “Bifo” Berardi describes our present as a continual prevention of a necessary paradigm shift. “The paradigm shift is a general tendency inscribed in the evolution of contents of knowledge, technology, and social production, but this tendency is hindered by entangling forms, which act as a form of repetitive semiotiser generating double binds in the social mind.” Currently, the crisis of humans and their every day life is therefore not least connected to a critical form, within which they possess a function that is no longer able to be fulfilled. This structure of a present that acts against itself in crisis, as John Milios argued, can to the same degree also be ascribed to past crises of an industrialising modernity. Its functional limitations, which have become antagonistic, also didn’t resolve themselves, but have been merely shifted through state-sponsored and economic crisis management. Its material discrepancies and frictions carried into the present. Our present is in so far ultimately a constellation of different historical crises, whose order is determined by the last crisis, the one of digital financialisation.

In Anja Kirschner and David Panos’ artistic work, this dynamic increasingly finds form from the visual signature of historical moments of crisis. Their productions develop exemplary historical constellations by means of their material contemporaneity in our time. For example, The Last Days of Jack Sheppard (2009) appears against the background of the South Sea Bubble of 1720: the first speculation bubble of the Early Modern Age. The story of the thief Jack Sheppard and his ghost-writing autobiographer Daniel Defoe seems as an allegory for the exceedingly contemporary connection of cultural identity formation and financial speculation. In Ultimate Substance (2012), a film that explores the development of monetary form and thought form in Greek antiquity, the contemporaneity of this connection with the current crisis of the Greek state is more than clear. Digitality is present here as a visible element of the film’s production: as a greenscreen, in front of which rock samples circle and dancers’ filth-smeared bodies make mechanistic movements. In this work, digitality and materiality plunge into and over one another, inseparably bound in the shared continuing historical power relations.

Indeed, crises appear first and foremost to have an invariably economic expression, however their material forms of existence are cultural, political, ecological, social, and psychological. Both human and material crises delineate themselves in individuation, as mutating processes that form societal relations. Therefore a suspension of the crisis within the economy is inconceivable, only its regulation. The process by which crisis-prone materialities become clear beyond their economic mediation could, on the other hand, according to Simondon, enable another understanding of the technical object and therein also an understanding of subjects beyond their functionalistic limitations. “One must treat formation as a special technical operation, instead of treating all technical operations as special cases of formation that, for their part, are only dimly known through labour.”

In the financialised crisis of capital, digitalisation materialises itself as a meta-medium of failed social mediation. In this failure, the traces of digitalisation gained visibility far beyond the financial sector in people’s everyday lives. The digital materialised itself beyond the computer, beyond stock markets, beyond the World Wide Web: in foreclosed mortgages, in devalued pensions, collapsing banks, and pawned countries. However, at the same time, this digital formation led to an actualisation of the connection between humans and technical objects. This can be seen in how Anonymous, originally a primarily digital movement, materialised on the streets of large cities around the world, or in the artistic formations of a digital conceptualization of humanity. A reversal is taking place in both cases: a discourse started to develop humans as an expansion of the body image of digital technical objects. A process of formation started to fall into place, one that developed through the perception of both technical objects and human experience as digital.

In recent years, this connection has brought artistic production to the forefront, primarily that of younger artists, whose ways of working mix the digital (mass)cultural identification patterns of humans and objects, placing their reciprocal interpenetration in the centre. It gave rise to an understanding of materiality in which digital machinery could no longer be confronted by humans as evil robots, but is instead subsumed into their own body image. The digital again operates therein as meta-medium, it appears as a structure of materiality in the object’s DNA, the materials, the (mass)media, the art forms. Here, with the understanding of social (re)production, the artistic also shifts, and the specifics of media order themselves anew according to the stipulations of the digital paradigm.

It therefore requires an understanding of the formation of materialities, in which they don’t remain in the status of representation of the crisis, but become indicators of an order of things beyond the crisis. An artistic becoming of form, which doesn’t start by allegedly suspending technical operations, but by locating them in the midst of their own production to significantly expand the “margin of indetermination” of the technical objects and thus their own.

Material Times

Nostalgia, limitations, and conservatism arise where this process reformulates itself, not through its topicality, but through an idealisation of allegedly “simpler” production norms of the past. Past constellations of crises are ultimately stylised as naturalised forms of living beyond technicity. This tendency not only influenced the trend of modernity prevalent in contemporary art over the past few years, whose contemporariness is not discussed through its digital mediations, but rather as a lost status that needs to be imported to the present. But this status opens neither perspectives nor spheres of action, only an apparent stabilisation via forced regression. In moments of crisis the present decomposes into pasts and futures: it appears as a return of the repressed, as well as projection back onto seemingly consistent pre-histories, as visions of future solutions and apocalyptic stages of disintegration. In the midst of the questionable present lie the crisis of unsettled pasts. The technologisation was not conciliated through digitalisation, but rather actualised in its antagonisms.

In Eigentlich 12 Mal Alissa (Actually 12 Times Alissa), a performance and film installation by the artist collective Discoteca Flaming Star, it’s indeed this movement of actualisation that enters the present as embodied monstrosity. It materialises in language and the body: a performer clad in only a fur coat and heavy make-up while who speaks about and through the texts of Ayn Rand, a central heroine in the wholesale deregulation associated with the North American model of capitalism. Rand was the author of Atlas Shrugged (1957), in which capitalism appears as the ideal of a (natural)force on auto-pilot that is led by “accomplished” individuals. Her functionalism without boundaries, the conception of humans and machine counterparts as pure means to an end re-emerges in the performance not only in the texts, but also in the spatial setting. In the backroom of a theatre, the performer reads the quotes from human implements: the backs of the co-performers, who are pushed towards him through the narrow room by a second person. But here the movements are loving, suited to the bodies. Rand’s literary and political mission of glorifying an a-social society isn’t repeated, but its aspects return in Discoteca Flaming Star’s performance as social and literary monstrosity of a past in the middle of the present, as an inheritance that follows us, whose spirit subsists in the present and seems to politically persist in the German crisis politics of the past years.

In many respects, artistic production thus plays a special role in this context then as well as now. In technical times it operated more as solution than as a problem. Still, the discussions of the 1970s, which revolved around books like Theodor Adorno’s posthumously-published Aesthetic Theory , Peter Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde (1974), or the Das Unvermögen der Realität (1974), published by Peter Brückner, Gisela Dischner, Peter Gorsen, Alfred Sohn-Rethel, and others, attempted to assess aesthetic formation as utopian production in the middle of the social-capitalistic alienation, which Rand envisioned as ideal: in Adorno it takes the form of attempting to actualise the modern promise of the emancipation of the subject, for Bürger it’s the revitalisation of the anti-institutional spirit of the pre-war avant-garde, while for Gorsen it is an “operative aesthetic” reaching beyond art. Art emerges here as unalienated labour beyond industrial production, as its utopian counter-model of a continuous process of formation. A production norm that emerges entirely from the materiality of its means of production, that was bound firmly to the limits of artistic mediums, which differentiated it from the technical means of production. But if one follows Simondon in his understanding that alienation doesn’t manifest itself in industrial labour as alienation from the machine, but also understands it as alienation with the machine, an “operative” understanding of artistic production forms, as Gorsen surmised, in which the process of formation does not gain autonomy through a demarcation from machinery, but rather, through a perception of technical objects in the middle of painting, drawing, and sculpture. “It is,” according to Simondon, “the work that must be recognised as a stage of technicity, not technicity as a stage of the work because technicity is the ensemble of which the work is a part of, and not the other way around.” Artistic production thus appears as a materialising activity in which work is only a piece of it. The “operative” as a standard of production beyond labour emerged within this context already with Simondon, as the “invention” of a way that technical objects function, whose use is transcended in labour as “the carrier and symbol of a relation that we’d like to call trans-individual,” which for Simondon is a basis of an alternative anthropology.

Just after the Second World War, in the afterlife of industries, the modern way of life in art began to noticeably shift. What Bürger sought above all, and what is still omnipresent today as a nostalgic penchant for modernism, was an actualisation of the utopian promises of an unalienated labour – whose fulfilment was coupled with the underlying non-simultaneity of art as a form of production in the afterlife of technology on one hand and, on the other, with an understanding of this technology as fundamentally less free and more alienated. However, in post-war art, artistic genres and technical tools joined to become expanded artistic media and the formation of art radically mixed with other areas of production. What Juliane Rebentisch characterised as an “aesthetic of installation,” in an expansion of the Adornian study of the “fraying” of the arts, is, as she presents, considerably characterised by an “intermediality” of all artistic work. Rebentisch thus characterises a simultaneous present of different media within artworks, in which the hierarchisation of artistic genres no longer determine the composition of a work, but migrate with the hierarchies of the non-originary artistic media in artistic work: a social synchronisation of art with technical production, which began to establish itself in the 1960s as “contemporary art.”

The difference between “purposeful” and “autonomous” media emerges as early as Adorno. However, unlike Rebentisch, for Adorno both exist within art, under the “aegis” of traditional boundaries of genre. “The antagonism in the concept of technique as something determined inner-aesthetically and as something developed externally to artworks, should not be conceived as absolute. It originated historically and can pass. In electronics it is already possible to produce artistically by manipulating means that originated extra-aesthetically.”

The electronics that Adorno recognised as a new medium of art in the 1960s has been complemented through a digital structure since the 1990s, in which the intermediality that Rebentisch portrays was reconstructed on a new basis. It’s no longer the manifold specificity of technical media that’s pulled into the artistic and recognised there that brings art nowadays into proximity of the social everyday and forms it materialities, but the medium of the digital that has undergone crisis. Its presentness in artistic media, however, doesn’t first and foremost follow a visual recognisability, but rather a form of perception, an expanded image of the body in which, as previously described, human and machinic materialise themselves both alongside and in one another. It’s not the obvious digitally animated artworks that are therefore crucially the “most digital” at their core, but rather those that trace digitality in the signature of the present, which traverses all forms of production: its recognisability, its repeatability and, above all, determines its social consequences. The digital crisis of financialisation produces a disparate materiality of technical innovation, whose connections and mediations were omitted or discontinued. Not only unconnected presents come into relation with one another here, but Modernisms and post-Modernisms also materialise themselves as unredeemed relationships in the present, bound through a failed standard, the meta-medium of the digital.

As opposed to the industrialised logic of production that Simondon describes, from which Adorno and Bürger also depart, and which continues to be postulated for the industrial synchronicity of contemporary art, digitalisation as a meta-medium of financialised production no longer creates a social synthesis of these different production paradigms in its current crisis. Its ideological positioning as a medium of financialisation, that abandonment of industrial production mentioned at the beginning of this text, created a purely analytical simultaneity, which calculates every material formation as asynchronous. The synchronicity of the financial market that Lazzarato describes and the synchronicity of industrial production that Simondon presents exist in radically different temporalities. Today both are permeated by the digital, but their ideologically dematerialised understanding through financialisation sets them, as described before, against one another. And again, it is Simondon’s understanding of a materiality of technical objects permeating society that transcends these differentiations by circumventing them, because “the hierarchical distinction of the manual and the intellectual doesn’t find any resonation in the world of technical objects.” According to this perspective, industrial and digital (re)production aren’t opposites, but a gradual displacement. Digitality is an ultimately material phenomenon that, as a meta-medium, fundamentally renews, even expands the “horizon of indetermination” of technical objects and man in their mediation between one another.

The digitality of the 1990s, described earlier as an angsty vision of an evil overtaking by self-aware computers, returned in 2008 with the financialised crisis as the existence of an omnipresent meta-medium. If the digital was then a foreign world of imitation, not quite deceptively genuine, today it is the signature of the world, more real than its opposite, and more material. The authenticity of the copy is out of question, but the reality of the original is extremely doubtful at present. In his photographic arrangements, the photographer Harald Popp produces incidental idealisations of this social condition’s general disparity, in which materialities are indeed ubiquitous, but their context must be newly established. Popp negotiates the momentous consequence of media’s digitalisation in 1990s photography and video art, depriving it of its speculative character. If it was a sensation of image construction in the 1990s that could ultimately be produced without print, today the real material impression of this digital construction is distinctive and omnipresent, as explained. Popp’s work is based on how the digital impacts the present, by which he builds a digitality of the banal, an exquisite beauty of plastics. Popp starts from a visual present in which the analogue is derived from the digital, also in the arts, whether in photography, sculpture, video, painting, or drawing. The classic and the “new” artistic mediums connect through the shared social meta-medium. The specificities of media actualise themselves and their relationships to one another. The alienation that Simondon described, the delimitation of the “body schema” through and for machines, is, in Popp and others, a point of departure for a new corporeality. In his photographs, the body of objects, like those of people, are equally effects of their digitisation. They are no longer systemically differentiated from one another artificial and natural are equally effects of this development. Popp therefore conceptualises a body schema in which the crossover between man and machine is reformulated to depart from the digitalised machine. According to Popp, the difference between the two is incremental because human perception and behaviour is preceded by the digital machinic. The limits of the human body schema are made productive here as an experience of a disparate contemporary materiality. However, starting points develop for a new “margin of indetermination” out of it. Popp fills it with endless sequences. He creates digital-photographic image worlds as situations in which he allows objects to perform digitality. The random things of the world contend to be digital. Therefore Popp allows digital steps of a procedure like colouring, converting, moving, mirroring, and duplicating to run through series of analogue superstructures, whose photographic peculiarities he systematically unfolds. Popp’s photographs are limitless, particularised test images, whose sharpness is digital handiwork and the work that frames and permeates this text demonstrate this by means of seemingly digital palettes for colouring, as well as spatial comparison: sign systems that Popp produced analogously. Popp exhumes the digital from analogue objects and thus pushes their materiality to the forefront, the indicidental nature of their digital mode of existence

Relieved of the originary task of the image, representation, Popp’s photographs ultimately recalibrate the observer’s perspective anew. We are the ones who get adjusted to the analogue digital construction. Popp’s works are manipulations of a highly-concentrated gaze – no optical illusions. When an LED-light and a ball balance on the ceramic nose of a seal in the large-format photo series Untitled RGB LED, Position 3 (2013), appearing in seven colour levels and photographed with flash, than the demonstrated effect is the emergence of the particular complementary colour of the light on the animal, which was actually white, exceedingly analogue. But the vision that it offers us remains digital as an image. It is the view that has become digital, and Popp uses photography to enact this upon us. It doesn’t need the view into the allegedly “pure” digital of computers in order to see digitality. Because digitality still lives in the seemingly discarded and out of fashion objects of our environment.

Our current financialised crisis has allowed a flood of materialities to come to the forefront that erupt from unresolved pasts as well as the dysfunctional present. This ultimately raises the question of how the digital production paradigm that was brought about by this crisis, and in which countless crisis that preceded it resonate, could eventually be subverted by these materialities. What can cause these New Materialisms to overcome an ongoing crisis-ridden alienation, to an expansion of a body schema of humankind that reaches inside the machines, to a shared media-specificity of humankind and machinery?

  • materialist turn
  • Anthropologie
  • Materialität
  • Ding
  • Materialästhetik
  • Spekulativer Realismus

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Kerstin Stakemeier

ist Professorin für Kunsttheorie und -vermittlung an der Akademie der Bildenden Künste Nürnberg. Sie studierte Politikwissenschaften und Kunstgeschichte, und die veränderlichen Konflikte zwischen diesen beiden stehen im Zentrum ihrer Arbeit. Von 2012 bis 2015 war sie als Juniorprofessorin für Medientheorie am cx centrum für interdisziplinäre studien an der Akademie der Bildenden Künste München tätig. Zuvor war sie u.a. Researcherin an der Jan van Eyck Academie, Maastricht (2009/2010), sowie Initiatorin des Aktualisierungsraum, Hamburg (mit Nina Köller, 2007/2008). Kerstin Stakemeier schreibt u.a. für Texte zur Kunst, Springerin und Artforum und ist Herausgeberin sowie Autorin mehrerer Bücher.

Weitere Texte von Kerstin Stakemeier bei DIAPHANES
Kerstin Stakemeier (Hg.), Susanne Witzgall (Hg.): Power of Material – Politics of Materiality

In the last years a new focus on material phenomena has become increasingly oberservable in the arts and sciences. Most diverse disciplines are stressing the momentum and the agency of matter, material and things and underline their status as agents within the web of relationships of culture and nature. The book "Power of Material / Politics of Materiality“ deepens this current discourse and for the time brings materialist tendencies within the arts, design and architecture into a direct dialogue with a range of scientific approaches from a "New Materialism“ within the humanities and social sciences.


This publication is the result of the first year of program at the newly established cx centre for interdisciplinary studies at the Academy of Fine Arts Munich.