“Giving Shape to Painful Things”: An Interview with Claire Fontaine

Parisian artist Claire Fontaine is a fraud, a forgery, her name casually lifted from a generic brand of school notebooks, her existence only present in the art that bears her signature. She was first brought to life in 2004 by Fulvia Carnevale and James Thornhill, art-world refugees of a stripe that has become increasingly common these days. She resides now in the neon gas, the video pixels, the found objects, the paper, the ink and the many languages that constitute her work. Where an ordinary object, say a urinal or a bottle rack, can become a readymade piece of art simply on account of the artist’s saying it’s so, Claire functions as a “readymade artist” to render this very artistic subjectivity in a more critical light. Along the way, she subverts the totality of contemporary art by plagiarizing its most sacred styles and forms.

Claire is attuned chiefly to what appears possible, and to what impossibly appears, as cast against the heavily policed image of the present. When given the opportunity to work, Claire would “prefer not to,” which speaks less to her keeping her hands clean than to her potent desire to restore conditions for a general strike.

She has a long list of influences. Most directly, her inspiration springs from the radical feminization of the Italian Autonomist movement in the late 1970s. Her philosophical roots are planted firmly in the revolutionary political theories of Jacques Rancière, Giorgio Agamben, Walter Benjamin, and Michel Foucault. Her artistic allies include the ironically subversive Bernadette Corporation and the anti-political writing collective Tiqqun.

This interview began concurrently with Claire Fontaine’s visit to Columbus, Ohio in the Fall of 2009 for “Descent To Revolution,” a group exhibit combining urban installation with public demonstration, curated by James Voorhies for the Bureau for Open Culture. Claire had two major contributions. The first was a solar-powered neon sign installed in downtown Columbus that cycled between the words “WARM” and “WAR.” The second was a multimedia lecture-performance on libidinal economy and human strike that focused on the bodies of women as site of political, social, and aesthetic contestation in Berlusconi’s Italy.


RCAC: At the heart of Claire Fontaine’s critique of contemporary art is a critical appraisal of the role that relational aesthetics plays in relaying the social conditions and objects of Capital into the space of art. Ready-mades like Duchamp’s Fountain, on one hand, saturate the art world with familiar objects from the “mall-like universalism” of the social world, while, on the other hand, further lionize the singular artist as originator of creativity and aesthetic value. CF inverts this formulation, looking for art to transform artist subjectivities through a becoming-stranger. Can you pinpoint what exactly it is that a ready-made artist can do that a ready-made object cannot? Is there a historical impetus for this shift from object to subject? To what extent does CF subscribe to a program of relational aesthetics?

CF: The question of relational aesthetic is crucial because it takes place at the threshold between subject and object. At this specific point several problems arise, which cannot any longer be classified along the lines of commodity fetishism or reification. Other more complex confusions and contaminations take place between objectivity and subjectivity. For instance, when a person comes towards you in a museum and tells you, “I am an artwork by Tino Sehgal,” and then requires an interaction with you, we are no longer in the dynamics of the happening or the participatory theater. It is a step forward and backwards at the same time.

It is crucial to stress the fact that people are not artworks, that the encounter with an artwork is regulated by circumstances that are incomparable to the ones that take place when someone meets another person. The ‘humanized object,’ i.e. the artwork, cannot compare to a living being, ethically speaking, or in terms of the creation of intensity. It is a philosophical mistake – as Winnicott explains – to conceive a newborn baby in itself, because this newborn baby, without an adult in immediate and continuous proximity, would die. The artwork is also a purely artificially maintained artifact that entirely depends on human presence and only exists as such because the spectator is there – as a reality or as a potentiality.

Processes of subjectivization are influenced by the encounters with objects. I would say that this is what artists are interested in and that it cannot be described in terms of the impact of an artwork on a public. The influence of the subject on the object is what capitalism in general—and collectors in particular—are obsessed with: the hand of the artist, the product which is the result of the worker’s labor). Extracting oneself from the relationships created by advanced capitalism is technically and practically difficult but emotionally very easy. The devices made for alienating oneself – from the iPod to the Playstation, from gym machines to automobiles, not to mention legal and illegal drugs – are the main products that feed our economy;above all, the “work” itself is an escapist strategy to avoid life. Becoming a stranger from the actual state of things is a generalized necessity, and this very fact should be turned against our failing system.

RCAC: Jim Voorhies’ curatorial practice at the Bureau for Open Culture in Columbus, especially with the “Descent to Revolution” show, seems to operate on a like-minded principle of alienation (in the Brechtian sense). Expectations of the gallery itself—its territoriality, its rules of propriety, etc.—are immediately challenged when we open the door, only to find an empty space in which we are invited to do anything we like, while the art we seek lives elsewhere. We might suggest that “Descent to Revolution” puts the “ex-“ in “exhibit,” in the sense of the outward distribution of art, on one hand, but also in the sense that those who occupy the gallery space are no longer in-hibited by art world protocol. Despite the apparent correspondence between CF’s insurrectionist art and Jim’s subversive curatorial work, the two are also strikingly at odds, in that much of CF’s work depends on its being situated and received in more traditional spaces of art. What is CF’s relationship with curatorial practice and curators in general like with regard to her subjectivity? How does Warm/War, for example, or a lecture on 1970s Italian feminism and “human strike,” respond to the complexities specific to a gallery-less exhibit?

CF” Within Jim Voorhies’ “Descent to Revolution” project, we committed to invest the public space of a city (Columbus) that we didn’t know beforehand. WARM/WAR is a neon sign run by a solar panel, functioning only at night, and evoking the climate of disaster but also the political “weather” in which we must live and which resembles in many ways war-time. It is and it isn’t a site-specific work because all we knew about Ohio came from our research and from a few descriptions that Jim provided us. We have previously worked in the public sphere, often with neon interventions that melt easily into the urban landscape and “advertise” themselves. Claire Fontaine is not an artist who merely works inside the white cube, and this has been true since her very beginning. We consider the exhibition space as a context, and we challenge its pretended neutrality. The talk on human strike was the result of the difficulty that we encounter in performing a presentation of our work with slides and explanations. We do it all the time; it’s useful for the viewers but very sterilizing for us (it is almost inevitably pedagogical or self-promotional).

Concerning curators, we can’t say that we have worked hand in hand with any curator up until now; we have met some of them that we like to work with, and we always hope it’s going to be a satisfactory cooperation, but we haven’t been “championed” by anyone.

RCAC: By displacing the focus paid to artistic production onto the artist-function, there seems to be a tension between the role of Claire Fontaine as artist and her artistic practice. We’re wondering why CF produces objects for galleries rather than doing something more performative, gestural, temporally inclined, or, historically speaking, less prone to commodification. Is there something crucial about defamiliarizing banal objects that are tied to a single purpose—like coins and neon advertising signs that are tied to exchange—even though they still retain their commodity form?

CF: It’s an absurd cliché that Claire shows mostly in galleries; we wonder where it comes from! We have shown in many independent and squatted spaces, but obviously these occasions are less advertised and don’t seem to mark the memory. We have an object-based practice (but we also work a lot with writing) because we are interested in the aesthetic status of the object in the age of the commodification of subjects. The commodity form is the one that we inhabit and the one that we have to fight from within; even our body is washed, fed and dressed with industrial products that all have a price. Why should we create a pretended “outside” just for a recreation? We are not providing a social service with our art but giving shape to disturbing and painful things, and it’s even better if people agree to exhibit them and eventually to live with them. We are not there to be an ephemeral and pleasant parenthesis between one activity and another in the schedule of the viewer; we don’t intend to provide any entertainment, nor do we intend to draw attention to the beauty or the poetry of the human body. We are suffocated by the horror of a fabricated world where everything costs money, and we express this in our work—that’s all we can do.

RCAC: In What Is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari argue that art, like philosophy, can “summon” a people-to-come but cannot “create” this “people.” Such creation, they hold, must occur through struggle. A people must create itself. Art and philosophy, for their part, can only make perceptible a people by illuminating those conditions that must be resisted. Is this more or less what CF means by “giving shape to disturbing and painful things”? Does CF see her position vis-à-vis “a people to come” in any sort of vanguardist sense? And finally, what exactly is the significance of “marking the memory,” especially if we understand the summoning of a people to struggle to involve some sort of story-telling or, as Deleuze and Guattari have it, “fabulation”?

CF: Discursive strategies within the political field have not done well during the second half of the twentieth century. The causes of this state of things are numerous, and I will make a long story short by saying that representative democracy has discredited the political world by entirely cutting any link between the speech and the ethics of the speaker. This is a deep symbolic damage if we in fact believe that the speaker should represent the people. Now this wound is still fresh,; intellectuals have had to suffer its consequences and tried to craft their mourning in different ways, mostly by justifying their shameful impotency and the inefficiency of their activity. For example, Adorno and Günther Anders evoke the moral catastrophes of Auschwitz and Hiroshima as the main factors that broke the link between thinking and acting, essentially through a technology of destruction that cannot be stopped by acting on people’s consciousness. Arendt describes this mechanism very well in the case of Eichmann, who was nothing but a part of an enormous machine he didn’t even completely know and understand. Faced with his responsibilities, Eichmann was inadequate and pathetic, ‘a clown.’

So story-telling and fabulation have also lost their function, or I would say this function has been modified – Benjamin describes this process beautifully in the text on Nicolai Leskov, the storyteller. There isn’t much to add through words. Consciously choosing the visual field and preferring it to the textual space, like Broodthaers for example did, is a political gesture, but I don’t think it can be defined as a vanguardist one. Maybe helping the “missing people” to become real is an action that can be achieved through specific skills, medical or technological ones, such as getting in touch with defenseless, sick bodies or the relaxed minds of television spectators and videogame players. What is reassuring is that people will arise from where we don’t expect them to, and there is no way to control this process anymore, we just have to recognize it in time and accompany it if we can.

RCAC: A quick question regarding method: Why talk about “subjectivation” and not, for example, “individuation”?

CF: Individuation is, as Simondon describes it, a singularization, a movement that goes from the pre-individual to the individual, a process of distinction. Foucault later on will explain that this process of separation – which is necessary and important for each being – has been turned into a strategy for better governing and subjugating people. We are anonymous numbers for school, health insurance, customer services, but we become “suspect individuals” to be extracted from the crowd by the politics at any time if we have a behavior that appears to be irregular. Subjectivization is a reaction against these devices because it can be as much an individual process as a collective one. So it is bound to oppose both faces of governementality—the massifying one and the individualizing one.

RCAC: Initially, it seems that much your art can be taken on two levels: first,as usual commodities in an art world ruled by collectors and deals, and, second, as familiar objects turned into tools for sabotage—keys to empty out galleries that have shown your work, pieces hung in a way that are just asking to be stolen, bricks cloaked in dust jackets that read like a who’s who of postwar radical thought, coins modified with blade attachments, and so on. Yet neither of these readings quite captures what CF’s work actually does, which is to play interminably between these two levels, ultimately having less to do with direct action than getting us to understand our own desires. Take the brickbat series, for example. We expect a book but must settle for a brick. Books and bricks alike can be tools for building or tools for smashing, but a brick on the floor of Reena Spaulings Fine Art is neither. The question thus posed, by the brickbats and by much of CF’s art, is not “What does it mean?” nor “What can we do with it?” but “What do we want to do?” and, even more important, “How is it that we, good consumers of capitalist art that we are, come to repress those desires?” The brick, the coins, the keys, etc., all express, on one hand, pure exchange value, but on the other, pure potentiality. How does CF understand the relation between exchange and potential? Does she see her objects as a challenge to the art world to step out of its repressed desire? Isn’t it precisely the sustained repression of revolutionary desires within capitalist art spaces that allows CF to continue being called an artist rather than an abettor of criminal activity?

CF: I would say with Foucault that power produces desires always more than it represses them. Maybe we intervene within the grey zone between repressed and encouraged desires in order to short-circuit them.

Potentiality has to do with communication and with sharing things, more than with exchange. The market talks all the time about the potentiality (of a house, of a student, of an investment) but, in the end, the smaller the margin of chance, the better it is for speculation. Flows need to be channeled, they can’t be left leaking around. When it comes to contemporary art it’s all more confused. There aren’t real experts out there that can say what is good and what is not—or there are but they are influenced by the market more than they are able to influence it. The reason for us operating in the space of contemporary art is not only to be found in its shield of impunity, but in its freedom. Our work is a discourse where sculptures, projections, texts function as sentences. Some things can’t be said with words, they need to be expressed with an object, a color, a form. Not everything is translatable and contemporary art allows people to use all possible media to very precisely express affects, percepts and concepts.

RCAC: It’s interesting that you bring up media here. Digitization literally converts “all possible media” into the general equivalent of numerical information. Is CF particularly interested in “new media art”? Would she care to comment on the political potential—or perhaps danger—of this “informatization” of art?

CF: Claire Fontaine is born in a fully computerized world; she is certainly a child of her time and cannot imagine nor regret a different world. If we have to name a real  metamorphosis that has recently taken place, it is the one of the domination of the moving image. It’s incredible how much the simple act of walking through an exhibition has changed on this count. “Making of” videos found online convert the slow experience of encountering artworks into a compressed movie where space and time are regulated by the needs of editing.

More generally, all forms of expression can now be absorbed by the moving image, but this is politically promising, not something to be feared.

RCAC: In her essay “Footnotes on the State of Exception,” CF does something very curious to the received sense of “state of exception”—rather than the space of the camp, in opposition to the safe space of civil and juridical rights, you take “exception” in a totally different yet complimentary direction. The “exception” here is what neoliberalism makes of each of us—that is, unique, monadic, self-enterprising, exceptional individuals. Coupled with the Agambenian sense of “exception” as camp, your formulation illustrates well the distinct movements of exclusive inclusion (the exceptional individual) and inclusive exclusion (the refugee, the detainee) conjoined by the politico-military-economic apparatus. Within this doubly potent analytic of exception, what value does CF ascribe to the refugee as a figure of revolutionary potential alongside other paradigms of “whatever singularity”?

CF: We usually say that we are political refugees in the art field, there are a few of us actually. The refugee is an interesting but a tragic figure: There is something desperate about saving your life or exporting your freedom into a country or in a space where this life and this freedom loose the meaning they used to have. The refugee is always a survivor too, and a paradoxical witness of the pain he escaped, but he is also inevitably a foreigner, in many ways. Now what we try to articulate around the different implications of the condition of being a foreigner has to do with the fact that not only are foreigners more and more numerous, but also that we all feel like strangers in an entirely fabricated world that we can’t modify. That is what makes this figure of the foreigner and/or of the refugee potentially revolutionary, because in the world we live in everybody is a foreigner—everybody is easily deprived of her rights—no one truly has the freedom of speech that comes from perfectly knowing a territory, a group of people, a situation. Things keep changing, people are constantly being moved or locked into their houses, so the whatever singularity, contrary to what one would think, might be a foreigner today.

RCAC: First, in trying to grasp our own contemporary alienation in this way, do we not run the risk of romanticizing the tragic fate of the refugee? Second, insofar as CF’s “refugee” is in no way metaphorical, we must say indeed that there are “foreigners everywhere,” as your series by that same name would seem to suggest. If we are all foreigners in fact (and not by analogy), does it follow that this foreignness must also be a source of commonality or that we hold this foreignness in common? How would we distinguish this from current modes of belonging and inclusion?

CF: As a matter of fact the imaginary of the struggles of the Sixties and the Seventies is extremely ‘white’ – especially in Europe. The iconic images of May 68 in Paris, for example, or of the feminist demonstrations in Italy that have shaped the fantasies of the insurrectionist youth up to the present, are simply obsolete. The same is true for the life-form of The Worker, the good proletarian. The term, the idea doesn’t match at all the faces and stories of today’s precarious people, whether working class and steadily employed or unemployed. There is a puzzling variety in today’s complex world of work, and unions flounder amongst all these fragmentations.

Foreigners have been used to break strikes, to stop the transmission of struggles, because they were very easy to racket, desperately poor and lost. Our individual situations today resemble more the ones of immigrants in an unknown country than the subjectivities that upraised in ’68 and ’77. Classes have multiplied, but there are different and more numerous possibilities for disobedience, flight, communication, and the reappropriation of things. But it is definitely much more difficult to get organized. Foreignness is our commonality, and we need to find the language and the gestures to inhabit it all together; there is nothing romantic in this urge.


RCAC: Agamben describes the contemporary in terms of a certain untimeliness, a singular relationship with one’s time based on disjunction and anachronism. This formulation seems useful in thinking about the relationship between CF’s interest in genealogy (e.g. in lieu of an artist talk, a lecture on the Italian women’s movement circa 1977) and the non-style of her art proper (Bruce Nauman knockoffs, etc.),both of which are rooted in the temporality—or, better, the untimeliness—of human strike: stoppage, interruption, refusal to act. Capitalist time, to the contrary, is characterized by discretization, speed and linear development. Capitalist art history, in turn, has always been predicated on like notions of progress. Innovations are measured according to the exceptionality of an artist or a work and the valuable addition of something new. By making works that mimic others, CF seems to valorize pure accumulation, fundamentally interrupting the historical trajectory of art, somewhat analogous to the way genealogy (in the Foucauldian sense) can breach a present power-knowledge apparatus by excavating the subjugated discourses of our collectively inherited past. Yet for all this, CF remains indebted to the art institution for the certain success she has achieved while she bides her time waiting for an uprising. Is her art-star status simply a residual byproduct of her insurrectionary pining or does it say something more significant about the inherent contradictions of the art institution in the era of advanced capitalism—namely, that CF is in fact doing something quite innovative by fronting the whateverness of her singularity and foregrounding the non-uniqueness of her contributions to the world of art? How does CF understand this seemingly contradictory nature of her work qua “art”? How does she measure success?

CF: First, the linearity of capitalism is something that we must call into question. “Progress” now means sustainable energy; it means devastating building sites all over European towns in order to put back tramways that had been eliminated forty years ago; it means organic food, de-industrialization of some territories, de-growth, austerity, recycling and so on. Technology is there to create new products and new needs, so it needs “progress,” but art, literature, music don’t really bring anything new—they aren’t even supposed to. The way these things are marketed insists on the uniqueness of the products, and the limited relevance of critics makes it very difficult to trace genealogies, to track the migration of forms and sounds. Plagiarism is all over the place, often involuntary, and maybe it was good to repeat it clearly and to dissect this situation rather than just taking advantage of it in a more or less sordid way. The whatever singularity that affirms herself as such is a first step towards some kind of emancipation for sure. CF doesn’t really feel her success, we have more and more work and we travel too much, but our life hasn’t changed substantially. It’s great sometimes to see the work reproduced in fanzines and quoted in discussions that don’t have anything to do with art: that is a success, the success of the work, not ours.

RCAC: Would it be fair to say that CF doesn’t seek to expand the frontiers of art, but to produce unforeseen connections through a sort of contagion?

CF: The frontiers of art appear as something very uncertain, if they exist they are only there to be expanded like the frontiers of freedom in democratic countries. For CF the art world is a space of expansion and experimentation; it isn’t a context to honor as such, nor something that makes sense in and of itself. The art world doesn’t have any content and doesn’t have a clue about what art is or should be; it has habits and prejudices but less strong ones than the rest of society. This allows an incredible amount of freedom: feelings, problems, images that don’t have any right of citizenship in social life or in militant contexts can take all the space that they need and therefore they can generate encounters, discussions, small transformations. Contagion is a funny word; if you can say that the love for a woman is contagious when a poet talks about it – as Dante used to say – then yes Claire aims to diffuse her desires and make them as common as possible.

RCAC: There’s something unavoidably messianic about all of this talk of interruption and waiting. CF’s insurrection is always an indeterminately future event, always to come. Is an actual revolution possible or must it remain a virtual idea, something to be hoped for, something that drives practices perhaps in a more subtle way? To what extent does CF share Benjamin and Agamben’s notion of a revolution in which nothing changes save a shift by a fraction of a millimeter, or in which everything stays the same but meanings change? Is this an adequate account of effective uprising or rather of what art is capable of in its pre-revolutionary phase? Does CF even recognize a qualitative difference between these two modes?

CF: I don’t see a substantial contradiction between keeping the horizon for insurrection constantly open (there are insurrections within insurrections) and imagining that radical transformations take place through very small changes, almost imperceptible ones.

Waiting actively is what we all do when the circumstances don’t seem to be reunited for moving forward, although there is a way to wait that accelerate the events; it’s this specific way that we are interested in with Claire Fontaine, not in a Leninist sense but for example by exploring different regions of the sensible, something only accessible in times where political action is rare and dissatisfactory.


RCAC: CF draws on Rancière to argue that the current aesthetic regime matches the boring whatever singularities of the social world. Representations cascade by without order or differentiation, a paratactical mass that indifferentiates, say, a Holocaust narrative and Flaubert. You draw a consistency between  Antelme’s account of the camp and Flaubert to argue that daily life in advanced capitalism shares in the pacification of the camp, the space par excellence of whatever singularity. This reminds us of Tacitus: “They make a desert and call it peace.” This draws out interesting distinctions regarding affects and violence that are usually hard to access, for example A fire is a fire is not a fire (2006) or Visions of the World (Greece, Summer, 2006), which are videos that depict the conflict and violence of recent events. How would CF describe her thoughts on the aesthetics of violence? Is there always violence in subjectivization? And what about the violence that resists it? Where do affect and desire fit in?

CF: Subjectivization can be in itself a pacific process. The conflicts happen because we encounter resistance in our becoming; we are supposed to remain “the same” or to change within very regulated structures, such as various sorts of “coaching” or education, which always occur within the famework of a teacher-student or boss-employee dialectic.

Then there is another specific phenomenon: It’s that some people are supposed to remain placeless, and this is where desubjectivization becomes a political action, on account of the necessity of breaking the correspondence between what we are told we should be and what we need to be. Affects and desires always play a big part within processes of subjectivization and desubjectivization—they are the engine and the guideline, respectively, of those procedures. The violence that resists them is called the reaction. It’s not very interesting in general; it works according to a counter-movement of conservation and the preservation of the status quo. We don’t know if there is one or several aesthetics of violence, the aestheticization of violence creates these abstract messages that we can see in movies, television and videogames, but this “violence” has nothing to do with the real violence that we are immersed in everyday. It’s this latter violence that would be interesting to show, or rather the continuity between this deaf, quotidian violence of administrated life in a country “protected” from war and the massacres that take place where conflicts explode.

RCAC: By what criteria does CF look at the aesthetics of violence? Exciting, frightening, destructive, creative? And what are the sorts of affects and desires that she hopes to generate by showing these videos that capture a declaration of conflict precisely in a country that is not in a state of war?

CF: What exactly do we mean with “aesthetics of violence”? For us some adverts, some faces, some expressions, some proximities between products and bodies are unbearably violent. Maybe the true violence is that one—the violence of photoshopped bodies, the words associated with certain gestures… These things have created a world, and this is the world we all live in. This coexist with police brutality, merciless bureaucracy, tax tyranny, continuous controls and solitude.

Open conflict exists in our pacified countries, in the work place, in hospitals, in prison. In these places people that have a minor problem get sick and die all the time, because nobody looks after them until it’s too late: there is no time, not enough personal and so on. As long as there will be wars where a nation sends soldiers to fight another nation’s soldiers, all countries will be in a state of latent war, which shows itself explicitly through the monopoly of violence of the police. Maybe this is something that we all know without knowing it, and seeing it on a screen can awake this thought.

RCAC: The trope of the ready-made artist diagnoses a crisis of authenticitypermeating the art world. “We are all ready-made artists,” you say—artists have been deprived of their use-value and are now submitted to the same proletarianizing forces of Capital as everyone else. Symptoms include a homogenization of the subjectivities that constitute the art world and a normalizing artistic field that prefabricates creativity. Yet you seem to remain optimistic about this moment. Is there a new possibility for communization, and, if so, does it emerge from the crisis of subjectivities named by the ready-made artist? And why is art a crucial vehicle for diagnosing the crisis? Do you imagine the art world as a space for transformation or is it a staging ground for escape?

CF: I will begin from the end, art is a territory where people can exile themselves and enjoy a sort of freedom that is, as we said, comparable to the one of the political refugee. Meanwhile, it isn’t a space detached by any means from the global economy and its tragic violence, and that’s why it’s populated by the same whatever singularities as everywhere else. Art is indeed a crucial vehicle for diagnosing the crisis, not only the economic one but all sort of crises. The very history of art and crisis are deeply related, and one could say that even the criteria to judge an artwork are in a state of crisis too.

Regarding the ready-made artist, it’s obviously a positive phenomenon, a breach in the mythology of the exceptional aesthetic hero and a step towards more accessible models of behavior andgestures, towards an appropriation of art as part of life and life as a part of art. Of course this is happening slowly, but blurring these borders between art and life in a non-romantic way still seems very important, even if it’s the non-artistic that contaminates the artistic. The artistic will arise somewhere else; it doesn’t need to be protected, it needs to be fed by our freedom.

RCAC: We’d like to ask perhaps an incredibly irritating question in response. What is CF’s conception of “artistic-ness”? What separates art from non-art?

CF: Claire Fontaine is not a curator nor an art historian, so she isn’t really competent to answer. Maybe a certain frequency of intensity, but this is subjective and historically determined. Today for example the most interesting artworks are those that question their own legitimacy as artworks, those that ask these questions with different visual languages.

RCAC: The thought of blurring the boundaries between art and life has long been a seductive idea.  But as Benjamin argued, along with the good ways of arriving at this indistinction, there are also some very bad ways (Nazism being the most obvious example). How do we go about it in a “non-romantic” way without going bad?  Could something like sexiness or sensuality in art serve as potential antidotes to romanticization?

CF: I don’t know. It’s certain that romanticization of anything can only be a reactionary, nostalgic move. On the other hand, sexiness is something entirely dependent on power. If one looks at the psychosomatic transformation of men and women when they reach power, it’s striking. For example Gianfranco Fini, head of the most miserable and pathetic fascist party in the world, who has always looked like a primary school teacher from the Fifties, is now the protagonist of a revolt against Berlusconi. He now has become another person, he has learned how to smile, how to seduce. Sarkozy tries hard too… These are very revolting men, but they have learned how to be looked at, how to capture one’s attention and benevolence through servile strategies in order to rule. They all speak to the lowest instincts, and Berlusconi is the king of them all: a living miracle if you think that he can even convince the public that his sexual life is hot when we all know of his physiological problems and his dependency on substances in order to have sexual intercourse. Sexiness is a way of connecting gestures and power, flattery and domination. I think Nazism has created a paradigm of sexual politics in the dirtiest way possible by stigmatizing illicit behaviors and races. Races are totally created by a sexual imaginary; that’s why they give rise to such aggressive affects.

Art and life belong to each other. Institutions are interested in drawing and redrawing the line for obvious reasons, but when we will all become artists it will make no sense to be a collector or a museum sponsor. The same is true for sexiness: as long as we admire sex symbols we are all expropriated of the miraculous and surprising complexity of human sexuality.

RCAC: The concept of human strike is meant to jam up the subjectivating machine of the contemporary art world. It has fundamentally to do with the transformative potential of refusal. Likewise, CF’s piece Human Strike substantially overlaps with the refusal to work as expressed through a strong affinity with Bartleby’s maxim, “I would prefer not to,” as demonstrated, for example, in a series of pieces that admit CF’s complete alienation from the production of the object (e.g. one sign reads, “This neon sign was made by Felice Lo Conte for the remuneration of one thousand, nine hundred and fifty euros”), and a refusal to articulate her subjectivity in the commodified terms given to her by the art world. Obviously, though, it doesn’t mean halting all production of art. Is the human strike directed exclusively at the sovereign artist—a desubjectivation of the artist that retains the artist function? What role, in other words, does the human strike have in relation to the objects of art?

CF: Human strike isn’t meant to exist only in the art field; on the contrary, the art field is maybe the most difficult to strike against because it is the least normative and the most flexible in some ways. I don’t think we ever display our alienation from our work; in This neon sign was made by… we wanted to make visible the submersed aspect of the production of art, its costs, its protagonists, and criticize the pretended neutral tautology of conceptual art (such as in Kosuth’s Five Words in Blue Neon). We do criticize the identification between the artist and the artwork and that’s what the device of Claire Fontaine achieves—it opens up a space for forms and contents to create a visual and verbal constellation that doesn’t only belong to us.

Human strike is a concept aimed at extending the borders of what is considered and read as political, giving political dignity to actions that might seem uncanny or just violent but that are in fact the only possible way to manifest deeply unresolved problems neglected by everyone. Refusal to work is a part of human strike, but the more important aspect of the strike is the wider refusal of certain human relationships and social dynamics. Human strike is open to the subjects that actually don’t work, whose work isn’t recognized as a professional activity, who are unemployed or precarious and therefore can’t organize themselves against some specific conditions of exploitation but but instead have to endure global submission to the economy and its merciless laws.

RCAC: The figures of human strike that come quickest to mind all seem to suffer rather tragic fates—Bartleby, Gregor Samsa, Joseph K… Would you care to end the interview on a more positive note?

CF: Of course! Human strike makes us think about the intervention of an anonymous woman saying in an assembly, during the Seventies somewhere in Italy, something that sounded like this: Freedom is leaving home with nothing but a toothbrush; it is sleeping on friends’ couches and testing their patience and tolerance; it is selling your wedding ring. Today we are already many, entire crowds deserting the prison of domestic work and imposed love. Today we are all inventing life and inventing freedom for the first time in history, and we know this will be contagious because it is the most exciting and the best thing we can all do.

6 thoughts on ““Giving Shape to Painful Things”: An Interview with Claire Fontaine

  1. Thank you for posting that, and congratulations. It’s rather fortunate that Claire Fontaine self-represents as a commodity because it somewhat lessens the embarrassment of delighting in such words.

    1. Yes! In a world that asks for your objectified labor in return for a modicum of dignity, presenting a ‘forgery’ is the closest thing to wigging in academia.

      … and I’ll try not to delight too much in the slick fancy publication style of RP. ; )

  2. “For example, Adorno and Günther Anders evoke the moral catastrophes of Auschwitz and Hiroshima as the main factors that broke the link between thinking and acting, essentially through a technology of destruction that cannot be stopped by acting on people’s consciousness. Arendt describes this mechanism very well in the case of Eichmann, who was nothing but a part of an enormous machine he didn’t even completely know and understand. Faced with his responsibilities, Eichmann was inadequate and pathetic, ‘a clown.”

    Most people are not directly involved with organizing train schedules and shipments, or with signing off on the week’s drone targets, or with how high one can stack naked and tortured human beings into a pyramid. Instead, involvement within the everyday, mundane workplaces allows for others who are more familiar with such projects to be adequately remunerated, where at the same time, as many inquiries are made regarding the rationale as did Eichmann at his workplace. Relative status in terms of inadequacy or with being a pathetic clown might be determined through scale of effort and one’s position within the overall endeavor. It seems to range from appearing for example as a complete bozo in full regalia, to just stepping out every morning wearing a fake red nose and floppy shoes. There’s an idea actually for a piece of saleable art. A mirror with one of those holograms affixed to the center, similar to those being minted with various paper currencies these days, that alternates between images of Eichmann and a clown depending on one’s vantage point while standing in front of it.

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