Group and Gang (The Absent Collective)

John Chilver

Tags: Contexts

Contexts / 18.04.2007

The trouble with the group is there is always someone who wants to be the leader. To prove exemplary as a communal organization, the group must withstand threats from within, produced by the contest for charismatic pre-eminence among members. So then, why do groups work fine elsewhere but not in visual art? Is the music group somehow less prone than the art group to individual megalomania, or do its pathways reward such a hierarchy? In tracking these questions below, I will describe the functioning of the group with respect to the ontological grounds of distinct artforms. These considerations will have consequences for the latent narratives of conflict and competition within the group. Later the discussion wanders into addressing group agency in relation to the internet.

Music favors the group that is extended in space though unified in time because it is an apparatus of simultaneity and succession. Music relates succession - a linear sequence in time - with simultaneity to generate anticipation. There is of course solo music, but it is never sheer succession without simultaneity. Even with the solo voice, the musical event - both for the singer and for the listener - depends upon affective simultaneities. For instance, when the solo performer hears the accent on a given beat and hits or misses that beat, this is absolutely a work of simultaneity. When in 1970 Hendrix plays his solo 'Star Spangled Banner', his deformations of the time signature are precisely chosen abuses of this apparatus of simultaneity. What matters here is that the use of simultaneity is not an optional supplement for music - solo or ensemble: it is the very possibility of music. Music is simultaneity with succession, and simultaneity already favors group agency. Two or more agents can mark the same musical point in time. Music offers itself as a group action. This explains why musicians are always puzzled to learn that visual artists have to make a conscious choice to sustain a social life; to be active as a musician is on the contrary to be socially immersed in the group.

The visual arts that unfold in space, and not in time, do not easily accommodate the agency of the group as distinct from the team directed by a leader. Of course, this is not at all unfamiliar in art, as with Warhol, Koons, Murakami and so on. Theories of surplus value will be no news to Hirst's painter-assistants, currently hired at £8 per hour. We could make a longer list. True group agency in visual art, however, is rare and always short-lived: think of the early Art & Language, some wonderful moments in the brief, heady life of Bank in the London of the mid-1990s; the didactic yet exploratory exhibitions of Group Material; some remarkable work from the Unovis school ... but then, no, weren't they just Malevich's gang, Malevich's acolytes? There have also been plenty of forgettable art groups: who now remembers or cares about Kids-of-Survival, PPS, hobbypopMUSEUM or Szuper Gallery? We could make a longer list.

The difficulty of group agency in visual art is ontological in origin. The fact that art is based in marks that are extended in space, not time, tends to mitigate group agency. The problem is: it is not possible for two persons - two group members - to mark the same point in space simultaneously. And 'mark' does not have to connote drips, stains, or other applications of sticky goo; the mark here refers to the primary assertive or 'thetic' gesture. In other words, the mark here is simply that which asserts itself by casting its surroundings (of whatever kind) as unmarked space (of whatever character). Only by negotiation do the members of the art group determine the condition and surroundings of their every mark. This negotiation happens before or after the moments of marking - it cannot be identical with the moment of marking.

Of course, groups do perform more or less visual works of all kinds that unfold in time. Nevertheless, they fail to dissolve the fundamentally spatial condition of the visual as such. In a visual field cast into movement, like the array of a video projection, the fact of image-flux does not at all eliminate the issue of visual spacing. In other words, even where a group co-operates to make a video, their agreement on how to fill a given part of the visual array at a given moment can only be achieved by talking - again by a negotiation that by definition is operationally separate from the formative visual technique itself. Hence, the actions of performance groups fail to become genuine group agency in two main ways. First, because much of what the performance group does amounts to multiple synchronous actions - a mere proliferation of co-incidental separate actions. Second, because if the interweaving of these actions are integrated then (and here we return to the earlier claim) the terms of the integration must be separately negotiated, determined by talking not by visually doing.

While the visual by its inherent spatiality problematizes simultaneity in the sense just described, the condition for music is the exact inverse: music invites two or more agents to mark the same point in time. Even if the music group does usually end up under the thumb of a dictator, the point is that it is in principle capable of genuine group agency. And this is quite a precise claim: not just that a group of people do things at the same time, but that they think communally and - more than that - that their thinking is their doing this thing together, and not their talking about it. By contrast, the art group is bound to plan and schedule its activities to a degree that excludes the possibility of group improvisation in the manner of a musical ensemble. Art-making for the group inevitably becomes a matter of talking about ideas, possibilities and sequences of operations as opposed to thinking by doing and making. As Art & Language said of themselves, 'The Art-Language association is characterized by the desire and ability of its members to talk to each other,'1 and 'anyone who asserts common ground with us [...] invokes a logically possible "conversational state of affairs".'2 In this insistent pull of language it is all the more likely that a contest for leadership or for charismatic priority ensues, and that the group acquires a hierarchy and so begins to relinquish its claim to group agency proper. Here it is crucial to stress that this overwhelming drive toward language to determine group coordination and co-operativity (not co-operation in the sense of reciprocity and sharing) is the consequence of ontological factors: above all the blunt facticity of the visual artwork qua extension in space. Since the artwork is this spatial (non-)organization of materials, the logistical problem for the art group is simply that of distributing the time sequence of its labor effectively for a product that will be an inherently spatial sequence. Hence, whether the group is the waged and commanded team of assistants - apprenticed at £8 an hour in the Hirst enterprise - or the thinking collective proper, its primary apparatus of thought will inevitably be language.

Deployed effectively, language finally produces further language. This centripetal momentum empowers one arm of language's rhetorical enormity. Given the force of rhetorical power, the contest of wills is prefigured and left to germinate. If language is to supply the group's apparatus of thought, as I argue it must, then the group is drawn irresistibly into the charismatic contest that will extinguish it as a group proper. Given that the dominant medium of thought for the visual art group is always likely to become language, it is clear also that it will be well nigh impossible for the group to resist the idealization - hence the tyranny, the totalization and foreclosure - of the concept. At its best, the group has a productive half-life in that benign phase during which the two contestants - on the one side, enacted thinking, or thought borne and enacted in movement and facture, and on the other, discursive thinking - elude each other's domination. But as soon as one gains the upper hand - and given the pragmatics of group operativity with its premium on communicative effect, it is discursive thinking that gains ascendancy - 'the writing is on the wall' in all senses.

The best account of the productive half-life of the group remains that of Siegfried Kracauer in his essay 'The Group as Bearer of Ideas'. In it, Kracauer describes how increasing successes shift the group's centre of gravity. The embryonic group, with its successes still ahead of it, is united, and its members de-subjectivized by the authority of the idea, i.e. of the mission: 'The subject as a group member is apartial-self that is cut off from its full being and cannot stray from the path which the idea prescribes for it.'3 Later in the successful group, members feel their subjectivity to be rekindled by outcomes that they take to be proof of their individual charismatic power. In this way, success for the group always undermines the authority of the idea and creates instead a renewed and intensified contest among members for charismatic primacy: Stalin versus Trotsky, Oud versus van Doesburg versus Mondrian, all the Beatles versus each other, and so on.

FSK (Freiwillige Selbst-Kontrolle), c.1993.

We know very well that all manner of art groups, including Art & Language, have become stabilized, normal art brands. Therefore, even if it cannot cast off the rule of authorship, the group at least sidesteps its identification with the opacity of the personal creative consciousness. To that extent, at least the group does pose its authorship as a function and a tactic, not a destiny. But what is the lure of the group, its core of fascination? The attraction of the pop group or the band is that of the gang. The gang hangs out. It skulks and lounges, wanders about in order to both ingest and affect a sequence of places. It unravels its own social-spatial domain: marks and inflects social space, casting its human backdrop as unmarked sociality, like the 'extras' - or in German Statisten or 'statisticals' - that correspond to unmarked social space in a film. What of the group-as-producer, then, is distinct from the directed team of assistants that produce? Is hanging out a mode of production? I'll work back towards this.

Consider first the group as producer rather than just the gang that hangs out. What is the mystique of the group as producer? Isn't it really the riddle of social relations that are not mediated by sociability as such? Or to put it another way, isn't our fascination that group members relate on the basis of their creation and that this is their decisive form of sociality? And sociality on the basis of common creation - not procreation, not family life, not hierarchy and not social reproduction - is indeed a utopian notion. We don't know how a creative group does (or should) function. We probably don't know this even if we are its members.

Hardt and Negri conclude their analysis of contemporary capital in Empire with a sanguine yet equivocal account of the internet as that which, for the first time in human history, promises the possibility of pure social interaction as the dominant mode of production: hanging out as production. 'Today productivity, wealth, and the creation of social surpluses take the form of cooperative interactivity through linguistic, communicational, and affective networks. In the expression of its own creative energies, immaterial labor thus seems to provide the potential for a kind of spontaneous and elementary communism.'4

The internet has allowed certain kinds of micro-spectacles to emerge as global information events. This happened a couple of years ago with the moronic and symbolically overabundant sport of extreme ironing.5 In 2004 it was reported that, 'Competitors are preparing to gather for the first ever direct competition Extreme Ironing World Championships. Events at the Munich championships include ironing while standing on a mountainside and ironing in water. Organizer Kai Zosseder says competitors will also iron in woods. The two-day event [...] has already attracted over 60 competitors. Reigning world champion Briton Phil Shaw invented the sport. People who compete are called ironists.'6 Let's breathe slowly here and avoid the pun that beckons (and what could be more contemptuous of the sublime than the gesture of climbing a mountain only to iron one's socks upon reaching the summit?). Here the point is that rather than allowing existing groups to better communicate - rather than binding together hitherto dispersed communities of desire - the internet instead concocts new communities whose very being and purpose is to communicate. Of course, this is by no means a neutral determination of the human. As Hardt and Negri acknowledge, 'Producing increasingly means constructing cooperation and communicative commonalities.'7 Citing 'the panopticon of network production',8 they also insinuate the coercive power of the internet which, put in Foucauldian terms, disciplines subjects as communicative interlocutors, as efficient stewards of information flows and as instigators of communication-attractor events.

The group that we want acts. Above all else, it thinks/acts, and it does so beyond mere coordinated efficacy. The group we want acts beyond the linear flows of discursive thought and outside the blind sedimentation of so-called 'swarm intelligence' - the process whereby the swarm of humans en masse sleepwalks into adopting and then incrementally honing the cleverest tricks of its innovative individuals (like turning the wheel, quitting hunting to tend flocks, or flossing before bedtime). Swarm intelligence in its unguided incremental genius is a marvel: no less evident and marvelous in crows and seagulls than it is in humans. But the swarm is not the group, and the group wasn't liberated by the web or any other revolution. The group that we want is the branching, nodal warren of thoroughfares that composes its thinking not in speech, but in enaction between and around the partial-selves of its members. The group doesn't march on its stomach.

- John Chilver

  1. Quoted by William Wood in Still You Ask for More: Demand, Display and 'The New Art', in Michael Newman and Jon Bird (ed.), Rewriting Conceptual Art, London: Reaktion Books, 1999, p.83.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Siegfried Kracauer, The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1995), p.151.

  4. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2002, p.294.

  5. The Extreme Ironing Board, (last accessed on 11 April 2007).

  6.; Internet; (last accessed on June 2004; currently unavailable).

  7. M. Hardt and A. Negri, Empire, op. cit., p.302.

  8. Ibid., p.297.