subversion as spectacle

Back in the winter of 2007 whilst studying for my Masters in Curatorial Practise at Sunderland,  I wrote this essay. I am still wondering about what I think.

‘Modern artists have attempted to move out of the museum/gallery, to situate their practices in an expanded field of activities and locations’. Discuss with reference to one or two artists.

I want to examine the work of artist, Thierry Geoffroy (a.k.a. Colonel) in relation to the ideas and work of Jean Baudrillard, (with particular reference to an essay by Benjamin Noy on Baudrillard and J.G. Ballard[1]) and in the context of ideas from The Situationist International. Colonel (being interviewed below), is the instigator of the movement that started this summer at the Venice Biennale known as Biennalist.

I have found it hard to find any articles on Colonel or Biennalist on the internet apart from their own representation of themselves and the small biographies at institutes who support them. Since the Biennalist project Colonel has been given space at PS1 / Moma in New York for his project Emergency Room.

The clearest example of the Biennalist project is this video showing the Biennalist penetration of the Egyptian pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale:

I first came across Colonel when Biennalist added me as a friend on the social networking space Myspace. Their page description reads:

The Biennalist takes thematics of biennials seriously, and debate their content and meaning through music, articles, video, blogs, posters and installations.Next biennials are Istanbul Biennial with its official slogan “OPTIMISM IN THE AGE OF GLOBAL WAR” and the Athens Biennial and its official slogan “DESTROY ATHENS”Biennalist Blog
Biennalist Video PageThis site is a collaboration between Copyflex and Colonel
The compositions are produced by Jens Fokking, Copyflex and Colonel. Blog by Morten Friis.Biennalist is supported by The Danish Art Council.[2]

The blog on the Myspace page read:

Biennalist is an art format

Thierry Geoffroy / Colonel does art formats.

Formats that can be transported, repeated adapted.

Exhibition formats

Geographic formats

Biennalist is a format that questions other formats (like Biennials).

The Venice Biennial will be the springboard for launching Biennalist for the first time.

Once the format is tested and improved the receipt for Biennalist can be exported to any Biennial.

Format is the parameter of form.

It is the format which actualizes form.

The format itself is the mere potentiality of form.


The Biennial is a format

Biennalist is a format.


Having heard the pulsating Biennalist anthem on their Myspace page I could not help but notice the matching rhythm in this explanation. (I have attached a cd of the Biennalist anthem downloaded from the Myspace page; notice how Colonel accuses the Biennial parties of being fake parties because they are sponsored). So my first response to the concept was that it was a pseudo intellectualism, a cultural movement of cool with intellectual pretensions. It reminded me of French advertising which is quite accurate as Geoffroy is originally French[4]. It also made me think of Parisian catwalks and the Madonna song and video Vogue: this look has a theme tune. Immediately there was the image of the bandana clad artists of Biennalist all strutting along in time to it and turning on the catwalk or to scowl at the camera. It made me think of image, of the spectacle, and how perhaps this look of revolution had been absorbed into the spectacle.[5] Certainly Che Guevara is a very saleable image.

The page looks quite exciting, and looks like an incitement to (peaceful) riot at the art world: with the utilization of a radical sounding syntax and the painted bandanas which look like bloody bandages wrapped around the head. On the one point the movement seems very positive, presenting some subversion, some wider inclusion into the relatively closed art world experienced at the Venice Biennale. Superficially it was very seductive as an “art format”, but there was a deeper nagging doubt.

Thierry Geoffroy is funded by the Danish Arts Council. This fact diluted the impression I had of the movement. I could not imagine the Situationists having state funding. I compared the idea of a format with that of Christian Boltanski[6] who sent the CCA in Glasgow (among others) instructions for his exhibition, I don’t think the word “export” was used, and would have been outside the ethic of the piece.

Cf “Once the format is tested and improved the receipt for Biennalist can be exported to any Biennial.[7]

My doubts are crystallised in an essay: Crimes of the Near Future: Baudrillard/Ballard by Benjamin Noys (which I had found on the J.G. Ballard website on the convergence of Ballard and Baudrillard’s thinking. Noys talks about Baudrillard’s concept of the “murder of otherness”, of alterity[8] in our society.

However, in this mode we find an increasingly shared diagnosis of the present and a ‘hypercriticism’ that tracks the fate of alterity (synonymous for Baudrillard with Otherness, difference, and negativity in their radical forms). If the universe of simulation aims at ‘a virtual universe from which everything dangerous and negative has been expelled’ (2005: 202) then alterity will be its victim.[9]

Baudrillard’s example is that of auto-immune disorders (1993: 60-70). The more medicine eliminates disease the more it becomes haunted by disorders in which the body’s own immune system turns on itself. To avoid the disastrous consequences of this elimination of alterity the system of simulation introduces doses of homeopathic alterity (small amounts of alterity that keep the system in ‘health’ rather than leading it to turn on itself). In this way simulation goes so far as to simulate alterity, after it has ‘murdered’ its truly threatening forms. The result is a new form of what Baudrillard calls ‘trompe-l’oeil negativity’ (2005: 203), the simulated mirror-image of ‘real’ alterity.[10]

Alterity then here might take the form of radical opposing thought, in the form of anarchy, terrorism and destruction. Biennalist seemed to be a simulated Revolution, a simulated riot perhaps aping The Paris Riots of 1968. Noys very interestingly talks about the funding of transgressive art, the right to differ being a crucial need of society. This radical force of otherness is simulated with seemingly radical actions. In the essay Noys concentrates on Ballard’s science fiction, and the increased violence and horror of horror films, as though this simulated alterity is appealing to the apathy of a people, who seem to be increasingly sedated.

The murder of Otherness, of alterity, produces a new obsession with it and its return in what Baudrillard describes as ‘the melodrama of difference’ (1993: 124-138). For Baudrillard this is particularly true of forms of identity politics and other proclamations of the ‘right to difference’. In fact this always reduces alterity to something negotiable and actually refuses radical alterity. We can see further evidence for this ‘melodrama of difference’ in the toleration and funding of so-called ‘transgressive’ art – for example, in the symptomatic fact that Charles Saatchi, who made his fortune in advertising (including for the British Conservative party), was the chief patron of the ‘Sensation’ exhibition of New British Art. In this case the ‘melodrama’ generates the requisite shock while also being used to market the singular ‘new’ achievements of British culture.

The bandana with red paint was an accessory for the Biennalist look, for the spectacle. Had the idea of revolution been taken up and commodified to “export” as a product to sell Danish art and thinking? This event has a very wide ticket to all of Europe. When I was “added” as a friend I suspect I was one of thousands who had the word artist on their page. Colonel/Biennalist was recruiting artists to join him in his simulated military / revolutionary manoeuvre to shout down the system, but Biennalist was also advertising. It meant Thierry Geoffroy, and therefore the Danish arts council gained extra representation at the Venice Biennale.

Since 1988, Geoffroy has exhibited and produced interventionist-like projects world-wide, including exhibitions at the Sprengel Museum in Hanover, the Roskilde Museum of Contemporary Art in Denmark, the Nordic Institute for Contemporary Art, Galerie Olaf Stüber in Berlin, and site-specific projects at the 2003 and 2007 Venice Biennale, and his ongoing project Emergency Room, most recently accomplished at PS1 in New York.[11]

Other artists participating in Biennalist, (and it was open for everyone to join), may also claim to have participated in a site specific project at the 2007 Venice Biennale.

This means that the exclusivity, the selectivity of the Biennale is subverted in some small way by an act, by a subject. It could be read as the marching of subjects over the terrain of objects. In this then, it is very close to the ideas of Guy Debord, leader of the Situationist movement. In Society of the Spectacle Debord laments the shift of focus from “the living” to “the having[12]”; what Baudrillard notes as the shift in the 1960s from “the primacy of production to the primacy of consumption[13]”.

However the French text Votre révolution n’est pas la mienne by Francois Lonchampt and Alain Tizon, explores the way in “which non-conformity and rebelliousness have become part of the ruling ideology of Capitalism…. Pseudo-rebellion and bargain basement non-conformity are encouraged by the status quo”[14]

In his previous project at the Venice Biennale in 2003 Geoffroy invented a competition The Curator Lifting Running Competition, which Geoffroy gave out tickets. The winning ticket would supposedly gain a pass for access to all the Biennale parties. Geoffroy went around all the pavilions in quest of his prize, which of course he actually did not have. The pavilions were not co-operative. The initial response to the competition was very small. However, the actual event the game of carrying people in a race was somehow more real (or less of a simulacra), and cast darker shadows on the Venice Biennale than perhaps the pseudo revolution did.

The aspect of play in this very home made project reminded me of the games of ping pong initiated by Július Koller[15] (champion of the anti–happening) across state borders.

Baudrillard comments on systems of exchange in Passwords[16], in Biennalist the exchange has gone beyond commercial exchange (i.e. the funding by the Danish Arts Council), and beyond symbolic exchange (the recruited simulated army of art revolutionaries known as Biennalists). It transgresses in part the commercial art world, the commercial art event and the realm of the saleable object but it is a simulacra of intellectual riot, it cannot travel to the extremes of that real alterity. Biennalist is a state funded revolution. The transgressive art piece is given national approval by the Danish arts council. The symbolic exchange here is important, for this funding gives the piece a doubtful credibility. Colonel however has returned to the Gallery space with his new project Emergency Room at PS1 in New York.

P.S.1 proudly presents Emergency Room, a constantly evolving collaborative exhibition conceived and led by artist Thierry Geoffroy, a.k.a. Colonel. To realize this project, Geoffroy has invited over thirty local and international artists to create and install new works in a range of media, all generated daily in response to current events. Emergency Room is on view in the third floor Archive Galleries from February 8 through March 19, 2007.Emergency Room is motivated by a desire to learn what other artists think about current affairs from varied international perspectives under strict time constraints. By providing a physical space in which artists can display works made in reaction to current events, Emergency Room takes the pulse of the artistic community today. On each day of the exhibition, artists will install new work in response to the events of the last 24 hours, an arrangement that recalls daily news cycles. The artworks stay on view until the next morning when they are moved to an adjacent archive space and replaced by new work.[17]

This then is returning from the curation of the subject to the curation of the object in a gallery space. However the object and its relation to the space will be temporal, since the works are removed to archive after one day. This project follows on from the inclusive ethos of Biennalist but it has a locus, it has physical and temporal parameters.

P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, an affiliate of The Museum of Modern Art, is the oldest and second largest non-profit arts center in the United States solely devoted to contemporary art. Recognized as a defining force of the alternative space movement, P.S.1 stands out from major arts institutions through its cutting-edge approach to exhibitions and direct involvement of artists within a scholarly framework.  It acts as an intermediary between the artist and its audience.  Functioning as a living and active meeting place for the general public, P.S.1 is a catalyst for ideas, discourses and new trends in contemporary art and its practices.

P.S.1 is “the oldest”, “recognized as a defining force of the alternative space movement”, in short this is the establishment venue for “alterity”. It seems just a little artificial.



Debord, Guy: SOCIETY OF THE SPECTACLE 1961, translated

Noys, Benjamin: FUTURE CRIMES BAUDRILLARD/BALLARD (video 1 of Curator lifting running competition Venice Biennale 2003) (video 2 of Curator lifting running competition, Venice Biennale 2003) (video of Biennalist penetration into the Venezuelan pavilion.

[1] In the wake of Jean Baudrillard’s death, Ballardian presents Benjamin Noys’s essay exploring the ‘point of convergence between the writing of Jean Baudrillard and J.G. Ballard’. This is a slightly modified version of the article that appeared as ‘Crimes of the Near Future: Baudrillard / Ballard’, Ícone 9 (2006): 29-38, reproduced with Dr Noys’s permission.Benjamin Noys is Lecturer in English at The University of Chichester. He is the author of Georges Bataille: A Critical Introduction (2000) and The Culture of Death (2005).

[4] Geoffroy, a French émigré, lives in Copenhagen, Denmark, with his wife and three children.

[5] Cf Debord, Guy: The Society of the Spectacle.

[6] I couldn’t find any direct reference to the CCA event but cf

[8] Alterity is a philosophical term meaning ‘otherness’, strictly being in the sense of the other of two (Latin alter). It is generally now taken as the philosophical principle of exchanging one’s own perspective for that of the “other.” The concept was established by Emmanuel Lévinas in a series of essays, collected under the title Alterity and Transcendence. (Wikipedia).

[9] Benjamin Noys:. Crimes of the Near Future: Baudrillard / Ballard’, Ícone 9 (2006): 29-38

[10] Benjamin Noys:. Crimes of the Near Future: Baudrillard / Ballard’, Ícone 9 (2006): 29-38

[12] Debord, Guy: Society of the Spectacle.

[13] Baudrillard Passwords, (trans. By Chris Turner) Verso 2003

[14] Loren Goldner 2001: outline of the French text: Votre révolution n’est pas la mienne by Francois Lonchampt and Alain Tizon

[16] Baudrillard, Passwords, translated by Chris Turner, Verso 2003


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