Nicolas Bourriaud © Sergio Rosales Medina
GAM 14

“Aesthetics Is a Tool to Understand Reality at Another Level, in a State of Suspension”

Nicolas Bourriaud (NB) in Conversation with Milica Tomić and Dubravka Sekulić (GAM)

Leading theorist, curator, and director of the art center La Panacée in Montpellier, Nicolas Bourriaud, in his latest book, The Exform (2016, first published as La Exforma, 2015), introduces art as a tool to understand the world in which we are living. For him, art is an “optical machinery” having the ability to capture the neuralgic moments and diagnose the contemporary condition by revealing the ideological mechanisms of exclusion from the public sphere and distinguishing the productive and the product from the unproductive and the waste. Going back to Courbet, Bourriaud outlines the process of rehabilitating the despised as one of the corner stones of modernism and, consequently, of modern art. Grounded on Louis Althusser’s concept of “aleatory materialism”—the encounter with chance and contingency, and the non-chronological progress of concepts and ideas—the book looks through art into the realms of ideology and psychoanalysis to see how exclusion becomes normalized through diverse cultural, racial, and economic practices. In the following conversation with GAM, he sheds light on the “exform,” the mechanisms behind it, and its potential to provide a new territory from which a renewed reading of the contemporary can emerge.


GAM: In The Exform you claim that “contemporary art proceeds with a similar anti-idealism [as Althusser], which finds expression in its will to concretize economic abstractions, represent immaterial fluxes, produce chance artificially, and lend form to the invisible (or to certain spiritual forces).” How does this understanding of art as an ”optical machinery,” a tool to understand the world we live in, influence your work as a curator, and as a theorist?


NB: In a previous book, Postprodution1, I describe how today’s artists use artworks for diverse purposes, insisting on the interest of “using” art as a tool. Use value and aesthetic value are actually close: art generates knowledge and critical grids, it produces ideas, and it materializes a specific relationship to the world. It is a vehicle, and we use vehicles to move, to evolve into reality. But as an optical machinery, it is located at the gaze level: The way we look at something changes throughout history. “Looking at” implies a position, an ideology, technical devices, the knowledge of the way our predecessors framed their own gaze.


GAM: In the introduction of your book you write that the exform “designates a point of contact, a ‘socket’ or ‘plug’ in the process of exclusion and inclusion.” Yet, the most important message is that “the point where the exform “emerges, constitute[s] an authentically organic link between the aesthetic and the political.” Can you elaborate more on how this connection works?


NB: This border station, this passageway between the authorized and the forbidden, the official and the excluded, has been the central point for modern art since the 19th century, and constitutive of its aesthetic discourse. And this double movement, centrifugal and centripetal, was a part of its energy. The “Salon des refusés” in 1863 was also the name of a statement, as modernity organized itself by opening up and enlarging this political breach, allowing the artist to explore the outdoors, the realm of “what people don’t want to see” or “what is not allowed to see.” What I call an “exform” is an object (material or not) seized by this process of exclusion/re-inclusion, which has to pass through this “gate” separating, more or less officially, the accepted and the rejected. The book tries to explore this process as crucial for the constitution of meaning in contemporary art. Today, in a totally overground society, the mechanisms of exclusion start to operate in different ways: when everything is accessible in a few clicks, when physical walls divide people, the symbolical center ceases to exist as well as peripheries. We have to face a very different mental geography, and artists try to decode this new regime. If some images or discourses are not necessarily forbidden anymore, they can become either inaccessible or remote, pornographically overexposed, or their rarity is organized. New types of exforms are emerging.


GAM: You also often cite Liam Gillick who compares the activity of the artist to a dog bringing the thrown object back to the “master.” It is an act, as you say, of a centripetal, and centrifugal force that builds a relation between the product and the waste. How does this relation influence the arrangement of exhibits or the spaces of exhibiting as such? And is this an act of building a space that actually is a limbo?


NB: The exform exists within limbos, or grey areas. And an exhibition also is an in-between, but in a different way. It creates a time of suspension, a space where aesthetics becomes more important than moral values: it does not mean that it annihilates the political meaning of an object, on the opposite. Because aesthetics is not about “beautiful things,” it is a tool to understand reality at another level, in a state of suspension which allows us to overcome our aversion towards the waste, the unbearable, the unacceptable. More generally, I think that the exhibition is delivering a kind of symbolic visa. In an exhibition, anything is allowed to be seen. Any object (material or immaterial) has to be confronted by the visitor, because it is automatically given this status, this visibility. Hence, the distinction between the product and the waste is disintegrated, or suspended.


GAM: If the exform exists, or rather “insists” in the limbo, is it exhibitable at all? What happens with the relation between exclusion and inclusion? Do we stop this process/relation (centripetal, and centrifugal) when we exhibit? What does become of the exform as soon as we expose it? What kind of spatial approach or act does it require?


NB: This centrifugal movement is never erased in the act of exhibiting. We can take the example of Duchamp’s “Fountain”: it is highly interesting, because the circumstances of its recognition as an artwork, and later its inscription in history of art, has been controversial all the way. Not mentioning Courbet’s “The Origin of the World,” whose life as an artwork was even more complicated. But we can also mention more contemporary works whose subjects, or references, makes them complicated to handle: think about Dana Schutz’s painting which was attacked at the Whitney recently, because she was denied the right to represent a tragic episode of American racism, as a white female artist. There is still policing of memories, but it is not anymore located within the center of power: it is disseminated, in a way that Foucault had predicted … Today’s symbolic borders do not stand between the power and the forces that resist it: they are everywhere. The binary streams contested by Courbet or Duchamp in their times, are nowadays multiple, and they go in all directions. Walter Benjamin has taught us that history was always written by the winners, but it is not that simple anymore.


GAM: In the 10th LEEUM Anniversary lecture you referred to the concept of four forms developed by the French philosopher Roger Caillois, all of which you see present in contemporary art, yet insufficient to capture all emancipatory properties of art. In what way is this related to your conception of the exform?


NB: Caillois said something very simple: wherever you look at, you will only see four types of forms. They are either born by growth, by a mold, by accident or by will. Not only in contemporary art, but literally all existing forms. One of the true originalities of 20th century art was to include all four as artworks, whereas ancient art was mainly generated by human will. Duchamp introduced the mold. This was already very controversial, as the dominant ideology considered art as a specific skill and the artist as someone who had to “create” something with his/her own hands.


GAM: Each of your previous books is deeply rooted in the moment of its writing, and can be seen as the attempt to think through the state of relations between art – artist – society. Relational Aesthetics is capturing and articulating what is at stake at the moment in which artists are trying to forge a new social contract between different communities by instigating certain relations thus making them visible. The Exform also proposes that only contemporary art has the capacity to read present-day relations and to understand these sets of relations, yet it is much less based on the contemporary art of the moment and uses the key moment in the history of modern art, when referring to art to develop a concept. Why so?


NB: Because sometimes it is useful to look back. First, The Exform is the first book I ever wrote using other books as a base, and not exhibitions and artists’ studios. I am not a philosopher: I am only a curator who writes and attempts to describe in a theoretical way the artistic landscape he lives in. Nevertheless,this link between art and the leading social stakes has always been crucial to me. It is the red line that brings all my books together. I also embraced the last two centuries in 1999 with Formes de vie: L’Art moderne et l’invention de soi,2 a longeressay which has not been translated into English. Here again,as I wanted to show that the dynamics I describe had actually been exhausted and haven taken on new shapes, I had to get back to the source. The modern dialectics of rejection had ended: in order to understand the phenomenon that is currently replacing it, I had to write the full story, and display the respective roles of Courbet, Marx, and Freud as by-products, or effects, of these dialectics. Yes, Courbet. We are used to see the two others associated, but placing them at the same level than a painter clearly indicates the particularity that you mention:according to me, art allows us to understand the world we live in, as much as philosophy.


GAM: In The Exform you return to Althusser and his concepts of materialism, especially the concept of “aleatory materialism” that he developed at the end of his life. Why did you choose Althusser’s approach and not, for example, approaches like historical materialism or new materialism that have recently been gaining traction?


NB: I try not to follow any trend. I explain in the book why Althusser is important to me now, and why one has to read him only to understand, for example, the birth of cultural studies and what they meant originally. Lots of “new materialist” thinkers should also read him, as “aleatory Marxism”3 is on some issues way further than they are. One of the reasons why it goes further is that Althusser includes ideology amongst the material forces that drive the world.


GAM: The third important concept in your book relates to the unconscious and to psychoanalysis. How much are these approaches contingent to your understanding of art’s capacity to make visible what is excluded?


NB: In The Exform, psychoanalysis stands as a model for understanding the dialectical movement of exclusion and reappropriation that function at every level of society. Our unconscious hides us certain images, ideas, or facts, and the analytic process consists in trying to “recuperate” them. Doing so, the patient is led to rewrite the scenario of his/her life, or reconstruct invisible parts of it. In a way, the artist works the same way. Art is very close to social psychoanalysis when it shows us the uncanniest aspects of life, when it re-writes the political screenplays we are supposed to play. Societies have a grammar, and the artist articulates it. Doing so, he/she exposes the unthought of societies.


GAM: Both books, The Exform as well as Relational Aesthetics follow the materialist tradition in philosophy. More specifically, both rely on the concept of “aleatory materialism” which Althusser puts forward in one of his last texts, The Philosophy of Encounter. While Althusser is barely mentioned in Relational Aesthetics, in The Exform, he returns as pivotal for the book and is considered as a whole person and not only through his concepts. Can this return be read as the “act of a dog bringing back the excluded” in relation to your first book Relational Aesthetics?


NB: You are right; Althusser’s thought accompanies me since Relational Aesthetics.4 And there is already a whole chapter of The Radicant5 examining aleatory materialism, which is titled: “Under the cultural rain: Althusser, Duchamp and the use of artistic forms.” But the perspective here is completely different, as much as the references to his writings in Relational Aesthetics. So, Althusser has not “come back” to my work, he has always been there, like a few other philosophers whose concepts are diffracted, present under different forms and seen from diverse angles. But you could say the same for artists …


GAM: Is the book The Exform, which establishes relations with the excluded, with Althusser as the excluded philosopher, also an attempt to resist the ideological framework of exclusion and rejection within art history and theory, which tries to hold onto Althusser as a writer and philosopher, but excludes him as a psychotic, murderer and Stalinist? Because of that attempt, and the way it is written, is it possible to conceive of The Exform as an artwork in itself? In other words: Can we see your act bringing Althusser into the focus of your book as an exform?


NB: First, Althusser provided a theory of ideology which presented it as a social unconscious, activated by a network of institutional interpellations. Secondly, he wrote many texts about psychoanalysis, from the point of view of the “worker,” meaning the patient who is “at work” on the sofa. As his mental illness excluded him in many ways, he was at the right place to understand and accurately describe rejection as a mass phenomenon. Of course, a philosopher who also was mentally ill and became a murderer was the right protagonist for a book about exclusion … That’s why I reconstituted as precisely as possible some episodes of his life, for example his entry by effraction at Lacan’s congress in 1980. There are narrative parts in the book, but I wouldn’t consider it as an artwork.


GAM: Is the exform, i.e., the “realism” with Althusser at the forefront an attempt to introduce the critique of ideology as the resistance to the political discourse that normalizes politics and practices of exclusion? Is “realism” just another word for the critique of ideology as the integral part of art or an artwork?


NB: Yes, partly, but realism cannot be reduced to a critique. Having a critical position generally excludes you from the scene you describe, because you adopt an overlooking position. Althusser, using his knowledge about psychoanalysis, developed the idea that you can be “within” a situation and criticize or transform it from this “within.”


GAM: You have never really mentioned the exhibition as a format in the book; yet, it can be read as pertinent to your definition of art, which points to a triangular relationship between the artist, the object, and the beholder. What role does the exhibition, the public moment, play in relation to the exform?


NB: You are right, I don’t mention exhibitions in this book, because for once, as I told you, it was not elaborated from artworks. But those triangular relations are always present in my essays. Here it is the relation between power, the artist and the beholder. Three is the main cipher of art, in a way. I always think in triangles. Maybe because binary situations are the least interesting ones.


GAM: In a lecture you once said: “Art is transformed into a pure commodity if it is not seen by human consciousness.” Should we read the exform as an attempt to take a distance from commodity culture/the commodified object? Or, can we think of exhibiting as a resistance to commodification? Is the mere act of being included in the exhibition for you enough to resist commodification, or is it related to a more durational and different form of exhibiting?


NB: The dissolution of the subject/object relationship will be the pattern of my next book, which is almost finished. Human consciousness being the center of this pattern, I try to reconsider it within the context of the anthropocene, whose first feature is the dissolution of the division between nature and culture. But art would not exist without a human gaze, it is not an essence, it only is a specific regime of our relationship to the world. So yes, exhibiting art is a complex and totally unnatural process, but it can provide tools against reification. All my essays are attempts to describe and criticize the diverse facets of reification: I prefer this term to commodification, as commodity is not the only aspect of it. Nevertheless, exhibiting can also become a process of commodification, if it values objects more than the forces that built them, if the processes are erased or negated, if there is no self-reflexivity.


GAM: All of the books you have written, Relational Aesthetics, Postproduction, Radicant, The Exform, follow the parallel trajectory to the exhibitions you were curating in the last 20 years. Can you tell us a little bit about the exhibitions that lead to The Exform?


NB: Your remark is totally true. I generally intertwine exhibitions and books, except for my two more “historical” ones, Formes de vie and The Exform. My research about the anthropocene led to curating of “The Great Acceleration” for the Taipei Biennial in 2014, which lead me to the next one, “Crash Test,” which opened in February 2018 at La Panacée in Montpellier, and which is much more focused, trying to point out a “molecular turn” in contemporary art. This cycle of two exhibitions will generate a book that will be published this year.


GAM: In an interview you once said that when you have questions, i.e., when you develop an idea, you curate an exhibition, and when you have answers, you write a book. Do you also use the format of the exhibition as a research, investigation tool and, if so, how does that manifest spatially?


NB: These two activities generate different types of thoughts and mobilize different ways of working. The collective exhibition can be a way to verify the different aspects of my theoretical work, but it also is a generator, as the coexistence of artworks within the same space triggers theory, produces new associations. Even if I curate an exhibition with a very precise idea, it is always transformed afterwards. Artworks always escape, from one point or more, to the box you want to include them in.


GAM: At the end of the introduction to The Exform you write: “This book seeks to participate in this new beginning – even as it refuses to return to anything at all.” What does this new beginning mean for the culture of exhibiting? And in what ways does it change the spaces where exhibiting takes place?


NB: I am describing and documenting a dead end, or the dissolution of a movement—like global warming dissolves the Gulf Stream into the Atlantic. But I cannot be more precise, at this moment, about the shape of things to come. Let’s see more artworks, for a start.


GAM: Thank you for the interview. ■




1 Nicolas Bourriaud, Postproduction (Berlin, 2007).


2 Nicolas Bourriaud, Formes de vie: L’Art moderne et l’invention de soi (Paris, 1999).


3 For more on Althusser’s concept of “aleatory Marxism,” in: Louis Althusser, Philosophy of the Encounter (London and New York, 2006).


4 Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Dijon, 1998).


5 Nicolas Bourriaud, The Radicant (Berlin, 2009).