26

– Spring 2011

Virtuosity and the Survival of the Subject: On Catherine Sullivan

Thom Donovan

Tags: Catherine Sullivan, Mike Kelley

Catherine Sullivan, Big Hunt, 2002, 35mm production still from fivechannel 16mm film to digital projection. Performers: Sarah Taylor, Jenifer Kingsley, Valentine Miellii. Courtesy the artist

Catherine Sullivan, Big Hunt, 2002, 35mm production still from fivechannel 16mm film to digital projection. Performers: Sarah Taylor, Jenifer Kingsley, Valentine Miellii. Courtesy the artist

Catherine Sullivan's work involves nothing less than the problematic of virtuosity. The virtuosic as it pertains to performance history (film and theatre), but also, to quote the Italian philosopher Paolo Virno, the virtuosity of post-Fordist labour practices, practices which entail an 'immaterial', 'living labour' of the contemporary subject. Before I come to Sullivan's work, however, let me dwell on Virno's notion of virtuosity for a moment. To be a virtuoso, in the traditional sense, is to be able to perform a score in some extraordinary way. In Virno's book A Grammar for the Multitude(2002), he poses the question: 'If the entirety of post-Fordist labor is productive (of surplus-value) labour precisely because it functions in a political-virtuosic manner, then the question to ask is this: What is the script of their linguistic-communicative performances?'1 What, in other words, constitutes the score which the contemporary labourer qua subject performs and how do the conditions of the contemporary labourer qua virtuoso - whose product is immaterial - differ from the conditions of labour which preceded them, those in which a visible 'product' or 'object' was produced? How, likewise, does one judge the value of 'work' when what is produced are affects or ideas, and when this production process relies on improvisation? Virno and his contemporaries, the Autonomists, provide a number of concepts which I believe can help us approach contemporary art practices, and particularly the practices of artists who make the connection between labour and performance explicit through their works. What might connect contemporary labour and live art are questions of virtuosic labour - contemporary live art being both reflective and critical of practices of virtuosity

Footnotes
  1. Paolo Virno, A Grammar for the Multitude (2002, trans. Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito and Andrea
    Casson), New York: Semiotext(e), 2004, p.63.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Sean Griffin in conversation with Pierre-Yves Fonfon in Annette Südbeck (ed.), Catherine Sullivan:
    The Chittendens (exh. cat.), Vienna and Berlin: Secession and Revolver, 2005, p.52.

  4. Ibid., pp.26-27.

  5. Ibid., p.52.

  6. Mike Kelley, Minor Histories: Statements, Conversations, Proposals (ed. John C. Welchman), Cambridge,
    MA and London: The MIT Press, 2004, p.104.

  7. Russell Ferguson, 'Sort of Excessive: an Interview with Catherine Sullivan', in FIVE ECONOMIES
    (big hunt/little hunt) (exh. cat.), Los Angeles: UCLA Hammer Museum, 2002, p.27.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Ibid.

  10. 'Catherine Sullivan Talks about The Chittendens, 2005', Artforum, vol.44, no.6, February 2006, p.176.