Undecidability as Resistance: The Potential Space of Suspension. Notes on Art Sheffield 08

Gil Leung

Tags: Jan Verwoert

Reviews / 15.08.2008

Ryszard Wasko, Zaprzeczenie (Negation), 1973. Courtesy the artist

It is hard to define whether the photograph of Julius Koeller's action of demarcating a tennis court in Time/space Definition of the Psychophysical Activity of Matter 1, 2 (Anti-Happening) (1968) is an artwork, a document of an artwork or a mere event. That this image presents such inconsistencies lends Koeller's work a tangible quality of undecidability, a resistance to a straight interpretation. Similarly, in Ryszard Wasko's 1973 film Zaprzeczenie (Negation), as the word Nie(No) is either being typed onto or erased from the screen, it is unclear whether this ambiguity presents either a negation or a paradoxical affirmation. The artwork prompts a reading and yet resists being read a difficulty also echoed in Revisiting Solaris (2007) by Deimantas Narkevicius. As we watch Donatas Banionis, the actor from Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1982), in Narkevicius's video, walking through the desolate space of a seemingly abandoned television station, there is an uncertainty as to whether we are viewing a documentary or a fiction, and even as to whether this constitutes a relevant question.

In these artworks, which featured in Sheffield 08: Yes, No and Other Options (2008), the undecidability of the options presented does not result in incomprehensibility; rather, they are deliberate slippages that occur at the juncture and disjuncture between what can be determined and what remains as indeterminate. As opposed to not getting something about the artwork, we might judge these artworks through an awareness of the difficulties they present. If both determination (yes) and determinately negated indetermination (anti-no) can be seen as determinations of sorts, options beyond this binary of anti-no and yes might form a notion of a resistive undecidability, both for the artist and for the viewer. In this sense, the notion of an artwork being undecidable carries a radical potential, as it opens a space between merely affirmative and negative positions. The artwork seems to present a moment of suspension between determinacies, a moment in which we might be confronted by the potential of making a choice, becoming aware of a space of reception or judgement. The first edition of the Sheffield biennial seemed to try and offer a discursive ground for this potential.

The biennial co-curator Jan Verwoert, in his essay Exhaustion and Exuberance, Ways to Defy the Pressure to Perform, originally published in Dot Dot Dot magazine and collaboratively presented later with Dexter Sinister in relation to Sheffield 08, defines the moment of suspension within a creative practice between exhaustion and exuberance. Such a suspension between yes and no may result in the creative practitioners experience of a space of full awareness1 the ability to operate beyond affirmation or rejection and adopts the form of a moment of paradox between passivity and activity. To be aware of this potential suspension, creative practitioners could allow a certain productive ground between their constructive practice and a critical engagement. Producing between these terms might offer a potential for resistance that perhaps approaches a Rancierian notion of politics in dissensus. In what sense could this productive suspension translate into the reception of an artwork? Or rather, in what ways could the practice of suspension in production prompt a space of suspension in reception?

As viewers, presumably a space of suspension would involve our understanding of some kind of paradox related to the artwork for example, the lack of a determinate form that would lend the artwork its undecidability. However, artworks are made, produced or constructed, and even those resulting from a process of dematerialisation are still apparent in some form or other they must be in order for us to perceive them. How then can we understand this space of suspension? Maybe it is only in the light of an artworks determinate presence that we can regard indeterminacy as absence. In this sense, suspension would not be a product of either indeterminate absence or determinate presence but the interweaving and oscillation of both in the aesthetic space of judgement. How can we conceive of this tension at the moment of reception? Perhaps as a moment of determination followed by a questioning of this determination, or maybe as the simultaneous imposition of both determinacy and indeterminacy? For instance, in the photographed Anti-Happening of Koeller's demarcation of a tennis court, we are presented with both the determinate document of the event and the indeterminate status of its occurrence. Similarly, in Narkevicius's film Revisiting Solaris we are faced with intermittent links between filmic image and subtitled text, that is, between acting and documenting. These works direct us as viewers via the opposing and interrelated fragments they present.

Such a suspension between two opposing principles active determinacy and productive indeterminacy is a dynamic similar to that of the aesthetic as defined by Friedrich Schiller, who argued that artworks could prompt a suspension of both the rational and sensible drives. In his famous example from the Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1801) of the experience of the statue of Juno Ludovisi, he states that we as viewers are confronted by a feeling of the statue as both beautiful and sublime. Schiller links this to a state of freedom, created by the ideal aesthetic combination of both rational and sensuous in opposition: allowing the subject at one and the same time, to feel himself matter and come know himself as mind2 Building on the Kantian notion of the antinomy of taste, Schiller conceived this clash between reason and sense prompted by artworks as creating an aesthetic space the paradoxical void produced by the diametrical oppositional combination of both reason and sense in equal measure cancelling each other out. For Schiller this was a space for mans moral potential unclouded by the disproportionate opposition between reasons dogmatic ideas and the senses irrational urges. How could this suspension be creative; or in what sense could an aesthetic void constitute a full space of awareness?

Maurizzio Lazzarato, in a recently published text titled 'Art, Work and Politics in Disciplinary Societies and Societies of Security' (2008), regards the suspension of labour produced by artworks as a potential for new forms of subjectivity, the subjects opportunity to withhold dominating or prejudiced judgement.3 In this sense, the void resulting from suspension would be a decisive political moment of resistance, created through the reception of an artwork. Citing the Duchampian creative act as example, Lazzarato maintains that aesthetic suspension can be regarded as the artworks position between being a determinate commercial object (and therefore heteronomous) and an indeterminate objet dart (autonomous). Hence the power of the readymade, where the suspension is not between making and not making, or reason and sensibility, but between terms established by the theory of labour. For Lazzarato, the readymade posits an ambiguity in placing together opposed labour relations of supposedly autonomous art and heteronomous life, an undecidability that opens this gap, or space of resistance. In opposition to what he considers a problematic blurring of the distinction between art and non-art in Rancierian aesthetics, Lazzarato claims suspension as an empty space.4 Suspension is not here understood as aesthetic judgement, but an absence of it. The shock of art that relates to Duchamp's creative act is seen to be a non-critical suspension defined in terms of its undecidability not even a dissensual suspension, but a radical openness for the possibility of subjectivity. Lazzarato considers this openness, the gap between art and life, to be the occasion for a potential resistance to domination: what he refers to as a modus vivendi, the void as the agreement to disagree. He argues this disrupts the aporetic logic of dialectical binaries, by operating as a void in between. Yet to promote this gap of suspense disregards the necessity of its constitution through opposed terms, that is, the fact that there must be disagreement in order to agree upon it. Therefore in Lazzarato's sense, as viewers our access to the space of suspension is through the works undecidability, its freezing of our ability to decide either way. The collapse of conventional oppositional binaries leads to the radical openness of the idiot, the role Lazzarato regards as the prerequisite for the production of subjectivity.5 In his formulation, the space of suspension as undecidability does not result in an active, full awareness, but in the passive perception of a gap.

In what sense is this passivity the key to understanding the difficulty we experience in our engagement with works like Revisiting Solaris? In contrast to this putative passivity, our choice to engage with these works entails an active element: our efforts to contribute something in order to receive something back. To use Lazzarato's example, for Duchamp the indeterminate quality of artworks related to the creative act of both the artist and the viewer. Duchamp articulated this relation around a gap, as a difference between the intention and its realisation, a difference which the artist is not aware of.6He described the gap as a relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed.7 In this way, the viewer, as part of the same creative act, aesthetically judges the indeterminable element of a work of art. The spectator acts by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.8 This is not a determination of the indeterminate, but a creative act acknowledging what the gap points to. To this extent the artist makes judgements through his choices, as does the viewer choices made around the gap originated by the process of transubstantiation, of transforming the inert matter into a work of art.9 For Duchamp, the incomprehensible or incommensurable in art can be equated with the gap between intention and realisation present for both artist and viewer.

The creative act is then defined in terms of making as choosing: to make is to choose and always to choose.10 Yet at the same time Duchamp states that the readymade is not chosen but chooses you.11 The creative act therefore is always both a passive apprehension and an active judgment. And, as the suspension relates to an aesthetic judgement of both the artist and the viewers, both are seen as creative and receptive they must be so in order to have an experience of the artwork. To conceive radical openness in terms of undecidability is to both decide and to be prompted to decide.

In this sense the creative act is reliant on an imposition from the artwork and the decision of the viewer to engage with this the paradox of the freedom of indifference12 across the gap constituted by the artwork. Therefore, suspension could be conceived as being produced by a tension between activity and passivity, choosing and being chosen. For Duchamp it is a continuous creative act that oscillates between passivity in the subject enforced by the (art) object and the subjects activity in choosing or deciphering of the object.

If there can be any potential in a notion of aesthetic experience understood as suspension it is perhaps through this paradoxical idea of choice and not through the understanding of suspension as cessation or regression. This would not rest on the undecidability of artworks, but instead conceive undecidability as the prerequisite for a choice. In this sense, the potential space yielded by artworks is not definitively a space of morality or a space of new forms of subjectivity. It is primarily a space of choice, a potential to resist and a possibility to create. To consider the potential of artworks to posit a suspension through both production and reception is to consider our choice for a space to be full or empty. When an artwork is made or perceived, it is done through a process that is always partially inexplicable: changes are made, plans are laid and then reformed, or are never even made. The end product is often the beginning of another project or the reposing of the original question. Perhaps the undecidable moment of suspension is not so much the exact opposition between two poles to create or to receive, to determine or be indeterminate but perhaps to open a possibility to choose, or in another sense, to decide to imagine. This is where other options, if any, could appear.

- Gil Leung

  1. Jan Verwoert, Exhaustion and Exuberance, Ways to Defy the Pressure to Perform, Dot Dot Dot 15, 15 December 2007, produced at the Centre d'Art Contemporain Geneva, Switzerland, for Dot Dot Dotmagazine, New York, 2007.

  2. Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man: In a Series of Letters (ed. and trans. Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and Leonard A. Willoughby), Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967, p.95.

  3. Maurizio Lazzarato, 'Art, Work and Politics in Disciplinary Societies and Societies of Security', Radical Philosophy 149, pp.28-9.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Ibid.

  6. Marcel Duchamp, 'The Creative Act, From Session on the Creative Act', Convention of the American Federation of Arts, Houston, Texas, April 1957, see http://ubu.artmob.ca/sound/aspen/mp3/duchamp1.mp3. Last accessed on 28 July 2008.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Thierry De Duve, 'Critique of Pure Modernism', in The Duchamp Effect, Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 1999, p.104.

  11. Ibid.

  12. Ibid.