“But, once adopted into the production process of capital, the means of labor passes through different metamorphoses, whose culmination is the machine, or rather, an automatic system of machinery (system of machinery: the automatic one is merely its most complete, most adequate form, and alone transforms machinery into a system), set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself; this automaton consisting of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs, so that the workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages.”
(Karl Marx, Machine Fragment, 1957/58) (1)
And once again: “A smart artist makes the machine
do the work.” To start with, Cornelia Sollfrank’s
frequently quoted marketing slogan for
the net.art generator —as well as for herself— is a
reference to and a test case of the partially enjoyable,
partially bitter battles fought over the question
concerning the origin of the new in the field
of twentieth century art. A late highlight of these
battles were the neoist anti-originality programs
and their biting satires regarding conventional notions
of the artist, in which dully diligent claims
to originality, which have meanwhile reached
the middle of capitalist modes of production, are
placed next to the idle artist as a complementary
position: “Originality is for losers. Don’t waste
time on researching and developing new ideas:
let others do it for you,” (2) says one of the most
important neoist strategies. If the name of one of
the most peripheral of all post-avant-gardes of
the twentieth century, neoism,
then it means questioning a pure production of
the new ex nihilo, the criticism of the idea of an
invention beyond imitation, the new beyond appropriation,
difference beyond repetition.
Of course, there is a certain break in neoist praxis: whereas the assault on the ideologies of originality and creativity is not least of all also an attack on the heteronormative order of the cultural sector as well as on the construction of the eternal creativity of the male genius that is central to it, the excessively self-historicizing neoists (gangs) affiliated with Stewart Home or Istvan Kantor are also not much more than rival boy groups or lone wolves. Cornelia Sollfrank links the line of the anti-original avant-gardes, postavant- gardes and neo-avant-gardes with feminist historiography that is arranged in a cluster around similar aspects. As Sollfrank says, “It has to do with power relations, pictorial representation and the critique of it, but also with a devaluation of the ‘original’ and unique work, the commodification of which is to be demonstrated in this way. For the institution art, however, the rejection of the concepts of creativity, expressivity and originality central to modernism is even more traumatic than the anti-capitalist decoding of the commodity fetish.” (3) With the perspective that phantasms of creation have always proved to be an intentional construct of valuations and devaluations in the art sector, Sollfrank inscribes herself particularly in an artistic history of art that has always had reason to distrust hegemonic male historiography and therefore takes the precaution of beginning to construct other histories.
THE TECHNICAL MACHINE
This feminist and anti-institutional target is clearly and obviously recognizable and a consistent component of Sollfrank’s work. Yet the point is both less and more. The motto of the net.art generator seems at first to answer the question regarding the distribution of labor once and for all: the smart artist on the one hand, the technical machine on the other that does the work for her. Yet is not an idea like this still based on a clear distinction between an artist subject, who in this case contributes their conceptual art smartness, the immaterial side, so to speak, and the machine as material object, mechanical subordinate and slave-worker? It would be nice if it were so and the machines would take over the work for us, but this hope is probably just as naive as the contrasting cultural pessimism of the Luddites of the past two-hundred years. Karl Marx already deconstructed propagandisms of this kind in the mid-nineteenth century in his Machine Fragment: “It is therefore a highly absurd bourgeois assertion that the worker shares with the capitalist, because the latter, with fixed capital … makes labor easier for him …, or makes his labor shorter. Capital employs machinery, rather, only to the extent that it enables the worker to work a larger part of his time for capital, to relate to a larger part of his time as time which does not belong to him, to work longer for another.” (4)
It is by no means my intention to equate the figure of the nineteenth-century factory worker to that of the artist in the early twenty-first century. Upon closer examination, however, the problem formulated by Marx still exists for us today in the context of post-Fordist neo-liberal capitalism as well. It would be too simple to think that by handing over certain—more or less—material components of labor to the machine, human toil determined by others would just evaporate.
In her essay “Programmed Seduction,” (5) Ute Vorkoeper describes that things are not as simple in Sollfrank’s work as marketing would have us believe. It is not a soulless machine that carries out the work, but rather a whole network of actors at the most diverse levels. Sollfrank’s initial conceptual art idea is first implemented by various programmers in programs, then updated on the net by their users in endless variations. And if one relates the figure of the worker in Marx’s argumentation to this more complex image of activities on and around the net.art generator, or even to its users, then the results is an astonishing relationship between the machine, which is indeed less and less a soulless machine, but rather a virtuoso machine, and the people as machine components: “In no way does the machine appear as the individual worker’s means of labor”; unlike the instrument that the workers “animate” through their virtuosity, as an object it is no longer dependent on the subjectivity of the humans operating it: “… it is the machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself the virtuoso, with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it; and it consumes coal, oil etc.” (6) There is hence no transformation of labor that takes place here, but there is certainly a shift of virtuosity, of creativity. As Cornelia Sollfrank says: “… it is about shifting the creative process away from a human being to a machine.” (7)
If we stay with Marx’s investigation of the factory and the machine as a technical one, the assertion of the virtuoso machine seems at first to be simply a metaphorical exaggeration, a transposition of human attributes to technical apparatuses. And conversely, human-machine metaphors have been proliferating since the beginning of modernism, describing the human organism as a small machine. In the following, however, I want to allude neither to these kinds of organistic metaphors, nor to their apparent opposite, the concrete penetration of the technical machine into the human body and the extension of the human body with machines, as it has been presented in performance art since the nineteen eighties by artists like Stelarc. Yet even with these technoid approaches, a machinic component that also applies to the human body can be found over and above the technical aspects. For the sake of simplicity, I will call it the body-machine here.
The involvement of one’s own body has as much of a tradition in feminist art since the nineteen sixties as the male gaze and visualizing the male body as the unmarked other. In a more recent series of mostly performative works under the title Re-visiting feminist art, Sollfrank has been revisiting classic feminist performances since 2006: Aus der Mappe der Hundigkeit (From the Portfolio of Doggedness) by VALIE EXPORT, Les Approches by Annette Messager, and the Tirs (shooting paintings) by Niki de Saint Phalle have so far been repeated in restagings, re-enactments, adaptations and updates. What superficially looks like a return from cyberfeminist projects into real space is simultaneously a reclaiming of a different virtual space, that of feminist art practice and history.
In the first of these projects, which involved the adaptation of a 1969 performance by VALIE EXPORT with Peter Weibel as a dog, Sollfrank led a man named Monty Cantsin on a leash through a shopping mall in Hamburg-Harburg. The path of feminist performance practice tangibly crossed that of the neoist open pop star principle here: Monty Cantsin is one of the standard multiple names in neoism, and it is surely not coincidental that particularly this line of the post-avant-garde appears as the successor to Peter Weibel, the king of self-historicization and self-staging, mutating into Sollfrank’s dog on a leash. Neoism has to be leashed because in the negation of the artist’s name, in the negation of identity, even the cleverest version of the multiple name ties into precisely this identity, into its patriarchal connotations and the narcissism inherent to it. Although the bodymachine Sollfrank/Cantsin is only conjoined by a leash, this leash promises the suspension of the dialectic of the name: the concatenation of the bodies of Cantsin and Sollfrank corresponds to the tie between neoist plagiarism strategies and the feminist appropriation of feminist performances.
THE ORGIASTIC MACHINE
“[Machines] are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it.” (8) The most famous passage from the Machine Fragment, in which Marx conjoins the machine, social knowledge and the general intellect as social praxis, is taken up in the post-Marxist theory now affiliated with Paolo Virno to describe the transformations of modes of production, especially from the Fordist paradigm of the factory to the post-Fordist paradigm of creativity in the fabbrica diffusa. The Italian philosopher has developed a concept of virtuosity along this line that can also be understood as machinic. No longer starting from the activity of the Marxian factory worker, but rather from the activity of acting artists, virtuosity here means primarily the fundamental quality of labor in post-Fordist capitalism, which, according to Virno, is found in verbal exchange, cooperation and communication. (9)
Against this background, it makes little sense to separate Cornelia Sollfrank’s collective, ‘political’ projects from the more classic ‘artistic’ works. Even if somewhat different degrees of art sector immanence can be distinguished in the individual projects, this question is more a question of subtle nuances. It would probably be more interesting to especially discuss the similarities between her virtuoso work on the technical, the organic and the orgiastic machine. The perspective of formal aspects can be regarded as the most general point of departure for this kind of analysis of strategic overlaps. In a sense, relationships between producers and users, concatenations of singularities, forms of social organization equally require both formal considerations and aesthetic forms. Or as Sollfrank put it herself referring to the old boys network: “Political resistance starts with how you get organized, and I always considered our form of organization as a kind of aesthetics.” (10) And there are smooth transitions here between the projects in which the name Sollfrank is given as the author and those in which the artist works in a collective with others. The “unnoticed surplus of non-authors” (11) in the project female extension, the endless creation of users in net.art generator, the cyberfeminist concatenations of the old boys network are social machines, as are the collective projects TammTamm, THE THING Hamburg, or the Experimental Takeover of the Kunstverein in Hamburg. What is respectively called organization here oscillates between organic and inorganic forms of organizing, between organic and orgiastic machines. In the latter it is less and less the ubiquitous metaphor of the net, the networks, the networking of previously existent points that can be regarded as relevant orientation, but rather the invention of singular currents, in which the dichotomy of the individual and the collective temporarily dissolves, as does that of the political and the artistic.
In the machinic assemblages that Cornelia Sollfrank is affiliated with, the most fitting example of an orgiastic machine is that of the uprising at the Kunstverein in Hamburg. Creating chaos in the order of the strings of pearls, unrest in the even course of paternalism, uprising in the drowsy, orderly world of a venerable German art institution, this is what distinguishes the virtuoso quality of this machine. In a surprise coup in September 2005, several members of the Kunstverein in Hamburg managed to overthrow the board of directors, so that it no longer consisted the same respectable members of the Hamburg bourgeoisie, art dealers and art collectors as it had for the past decade, but of a wild troop of artists, art educators and remnants of the old board instead. (12) The commotion was substantial. The annual general meeting, election of board members, delegation of votes, constitution of the association, agenda and other entertaining attempts overrule the decision made by the court apparatus affiliated with the regional art multi-functionary Harald Falckenberg and the art manager Yilmaz Dziewior were at first unable to keep the orgiastic machine from carrying out its blithe pranks with the organs of order. The establishment was thus promptly provoked into demonstrating examples of its regal understanding of authority in the form of legal tricks, threatening gestures and the massive recruitment of obedient henchmen. The orgiastic turbulence was calmed only one month later. The spontaneous usurpers were apparently ‘democratically’ defeated in a forced re-election. The apparatus of the royal household, as it were, returned with additional votes, the children had learned democracy, and reterritorialization spread its mantel over the unruly game. Yet there remains the memory of a brief period in which the orgiastic machine recoded the state apparatus … And who knows when it might return.
Translation: Michael Wolfson
(1) MEW (Marx Engels Werke), vol. 42, p. 592 [http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch13.htm, accessed February 9, 2009].
(2) Stewart Home, quoted here from: Oliver Machart, Neoismus. Avantgarde und Selbsthistorisierung, Klagenfurt/Vienna 1997, p. 40.
(3) Translated from Cornelia Sollfrank, “Originale... und andere unethische AutorInnenschaften in der Kunst”, in: Kulturrisse 01/07, p. 25.
(4) MEW 42, p. 597 [http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch13.htm, accessed February 9, 2009].
(5) Ute Vorkoeper, “Programmed Seduction. Cornelia Sollfrank tests new models of authorship on the Net”, in: net.art generator. Programmed Seduction, Nuremberg 2004, pp. 128-31; see also Cornelia Sollfrank’s project descriptions, ibid., pp. 132-7.
(6) MEW 42, 592f. [http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch13.htm, accessed February 9, 2009].
(7) Cornelia Sollfrank, interview by Alessandro Ludovico, in: neural 27, p. 43.
(8) MEW, vol. 42, p. 602 [http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch14.htm, accessed February 9, 2009]
(9) See Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude. For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life, Los Angeles 2004 and – especially on the relationship of concepts of virtuosity between Hannah Arendt and Virno – Isabell Lorey, “Virtuosos of Freedom”, in transversal 02/07, “creativity hypes”, [http://eipcp.net/transversal/0207/lorey/en, accessed February 9, 2009].
(10) Cornelia Sollfrank, interview by Maider Zilbeti, in: Zehar 63 (August 2008), p. 9.
(11) Vorkoeper, “Programmed Seduction,” p. 130.
(12) See Michel Chevalier, Cornelia Sollfrank, Nana Petzet, Frank Stühlmeyer, Claudia Reiche, Rahel Puffert, “Praktizierte Kritik an der Institution. Der Fall Kunstverein in Hamburg,” in: Kulturrisse 01/06, pp. 62-5.