The Object has a Life of its Own: Michel de Broin in Conversation with Daniel Sherer

 Michel de Broin, Opacity of the Body within the Transparency of the Circuit 1997, Glass, red wine, containers,
mineral oil, light bulb, electrical cords, 150 x 60 x 20 cm

Michel de Broin in Conversation with Daniel Sherer

On March 15 at the ISCP in Bushwick, as part of the Brooklyn Commons series curated by Kari Conte, Michel de Broin and Vito Acconci engaged in a conversation about their work with the critic and historian Daniel Sherer as respondent. Recently Sherer was invited for a studio visit in which he followed up on the earlier conversation. Dealing with unexplored issues raised by the dialogue, the interview addressed themes explored by de Broin’s trajectory with reference to the artist’s one man show at the Musee d’Art Contemporain in Montreal last year.  

Daniel Sherer: Michel thank you for agreeing to do this interview on such short notice. In the conversation with Vito Acconci, I noted a couple of threads that illuminate your work. The first thing I recall is that Vito said art is no longer possible, since it is just another sector of the market, and he also said that since art is something to be put on a pedestal, he does not want to have any part of it. As if art has not always had, in modernity, a commodity function, in one form or another. But your response said something that was revealing as far as contemporary art is concerned.

Michel de Broin: It is perhaps interesting to recall that he gives art a fixed meaning. I ask myself: can art really have such a signification? I strongly doubt that it can. In fact no one agrees how exactly to define art.

DS: Adorno said that art, whose content and very existence is historically conditioned, is always changing its definition.

MdB: It also could be pointed out that art can have a negative meaning, as it is too insignificant to have a social impact. Art can be seen in terms of its disconnection from the real. Many people think, on the contrary, they need a form of practice that is in some way closer to social reality. They seek to relate practice to its contexts more clearly, instead of isolating an object in a white box, in some kind rarefied gallery space. When Vito said he refused to be an artist, that he prefers to be an architect, this is what he was driving it, essentially.

DS: And yet art does break with established realities, or, at the very least, it can open up a space in which such a break might be conceivable. Does art also operate in a similar way to Foucault’s idea of epistemological break—that is, as a rupture with everyday experience and with the habitual significations associated with the object?  In this regard art could be seen—and your art is no exception—as stripping ordinary phenomena of their self-evidence. It would thus bring about in this way a radical shift effected by semantic distortion and physical dislocation. When I encounter your work, which deploys many of these strategies in addition to a host of others, it suggests that this idea of a radical break has effects that are both aesthetic and epistemological.

MdB: This idea is quite interesting and useful, but it is not relevant to Vito’s assertion that art nowadays has become little more than an object on a pedestal. And for this reason he said that the artist must refuse to endorse this elitist gesture.

DS: Vito went even further when he said that art is not a living proposition any more, as it is a side-effect of capitalism. He reduced aesthetic value to exchange value.  The grounds for this identification were, in his view, the stratospheric prices that art commands on the contemporary art market. Following this kind of one-dimensional reading, art as such is no longer as an autonomous or partially autonomous cultural practice. You answered his claim by saying, “Well that’s all very well and good for a small part of the New York art scene, but to extend this generalization to the entire art world is clearly not getting us anywhere.”  Even the most informe work has more form than that which is not art, and this specificity of artistic form resists all readings which try to reduce art to its socioeconomic determinations.  

MdeB: In any case Vito was off base if only because he was making that comment in a room filled with artists from different countries, and no one there was dealing with this kind of commercial success. Moreover projects involve many different layers of invention, and since the economy is part of the artistic process, it can drive artistic production, but also sink it. His assertion does not fairly represent artistic practices I am familiar with: ones that constantly discover new possibilities with few means at their disposal.

DS: According to Adorno, art is both a social fact and autonomous, resisting the heteronomous forces of the economy. From this perspective art has a form and a space outside of the social, even if it generated by society and in social contexts. That’s different than a pedestal. It is not part of the conventional world of values. 

MdB: Art can valorize neglected objects or neglected experiences.

DS: Can it call value it into question? Can it also destroy value?

MdB: It can destroy value, it can create different values.

DS: So its an opérateur.

MdB: Some people are looking for meaning, but the market is meaningless. 

DS: That’s very interesting, yet one might also say that the market becomes the only meaning…But I agree with you. If the market monopolizes meaning then it becomes meaningless, because there is no other possibility for discussion.

MdB: Art can search for something outside of what already exists, for dérives that are not yet profitable.

DS: If I have learned anything from your art is that there is no such thing as one process, there’s many. You almost always employ multiple strategies.

MdB: If art is a problem for you, as Vito Acconci says, then we can call it a monster.

DS: The monstrous, as you pointed out, derives from to Latin word monstrare, to show. And the monster is about the unique, the singular: the monster is not necessarily a horrible thing. This completely unsettled any discussion that says art is one thing—as when Vito said art is nothing more than market forces. The monstrous, on the other hand, is constantly changing, upsetting conventional categories, clear distinctions, and habitual expectations.

MdB: It is hybrid.

DS: That’s what is interesting about it: it’s an entity in between, lodged between established species, between the living and the dead, resisting anything clear cut. It is pure metamorphosis, absolute ambiguity.

MdB: It is like Frankenstein’s monster: the artist makes everything that is within the limit of his power, and the first thing you know is that it begins to has a life of its own. Art exceeds planning and control. The monster is highly attractive because it is both exhibitionistic and impenetrable.

DS: Vito then asked me something very funny: “Will people sit on your monster? Do you think people will interact with your monster?

MdB: Monsters also fall in love.

DS: I love the way Frankenstein’s monster picked up the girl and threw her into the river—the girl who was picking flowers—he picked HER in this sense—and then threw her down, thinking that this would do no harm. That in a way is the ultimate artistic act, which is to kill the thing you love. It is essentially a non-culpable, innocent act of violence. Here we face the truly monstrous: at once violent and innocent.

By the way I believe I could look at your work through the eyes of the monster. One that struck me as exemplifying this is Lost Object, because like love, when you get closer it eludes your grasp. Your work is literally, physically and spatially elusive.

MdB: A problem that critics sometimes have is they take the particular example and bring it to the general level too hastily, thereby overlooking the irreducible particularity of each work. In this case, I would say rather that each piece is a specific moment of reflection.

DS: But there are certain patterns or tendencies.

MdB: And of course they bring on this discussion and you can see it in other pieces. But some are not elusive. Some pieces resist, some come to you, some others need to be activated, like the bicycle that produces smoke when you pedal.

DS: The bicycle piece produces smoke that looks like it is pollution but its not.

MdB: You know in a museum I thought that everything is made to be visible to be given to the public, And the museum has these big expectations about how the audience should be and behave. They think they know what is the public.

DS: But, there is no public that preexists the work; the work generates its own public, it constitutes it.

MdB: That is why I wanted to present Lost Object, a piece that retreats into the wall when the spectator comes near. This piece involves a specific experience of elusiveness…All of us have had the experience of going into the forest wanting to see a wild animal that in the end will remain invisible, hidden.

There is something hidden in the gallery. That’s the reason we go! People are more attracted to the hidden side of the work than to the visible part. Because they were all standing there in front of the hole waiting for the beast to come out.

DS: This thought recalls Merleau Ponty. Also Hegel, who described thinking in terms what he called “the fury of disappearance”. He said the concept hinges on the power of the negative, and thus its sense centers on its own disappearance, and reappearance…which is of course an aspect of the dialectic.

MdB: At the same time we need some visibility to draw the circumference of the hole, that negative moment in the work. That explains how some apparatuses are at times extremely conspicuous, technically elaborate and at the same time delineating the invisible. Like the bicycle that disappears into the cloud of smoke that it produces.

DS: It make me think of your piece with the howitzers joined in a continuous loop.

MdB: Blowback.

DS: Which is like the American blowback of Al Qaeda, after we aided them in Afghanistan against the Soviets, they later attacked us. The continuous loop of the weapon shows that it is somehow sexual (screwy), like autofellatio; it also suggests the power of the state to screw things up.

And it also suggests moreover that state and military power form a single loop, a closed system. A continuous loop of energy. This piece, one of my favorites, is poised between a critique of militarism and a pure exploration, at once physical and spatial, of energy, its containment and its loss.

MdB: Yes. I like to see these systems producing entropy, generating loss, maybe more like a pointe de fuite…a point where energy leaves the system. I like to think of this energy loss as an opening onto pure exteriority, into a world exceeding all visibility. 

Some will look only at the surface of the work and see a big machine without understanding that this machinery is actually producing loss and unleashing the negative.

DS: The experience of the observer is clearly different from the experience of the artist. Yet the artist is also an observer. Do you ever feel that the work of art you are making is running away from you?

MdB: Yeah totally, like Frankenstein’s monster.

DS: Can you give an example?

MdB: I put disparate things together. It’s a bit like an experiment that involves mixing opposed elements resulting in contradictory values. You shake this unstable compound and it produces an unpredictable object.

DS: An explosion.

MdB: Then you deal with this explosion. Try to understand how it happened, and how you can reproduce it. And you try again, and then it is a totally different object!

DS: The experiment produces different results each time, which is the opposite of the scientific ideal. Here is a good example of that in your work. There is a punk looking guy who appears beneath a streetlamp with a power saw. He cuts down the streetlamp until the entire area is shrouded in darkness. What is that piece called?

MdB: Cut into the dark.

DS The title says everything. It speaks about the cut, which releases everything.

This is also a moment of disturbance. In a way, is your work concerned with making a connection with the spectator by disconnecting?

MdB: I always resist when you generalize an observation from one work and apply it to all the others. If in some work it was imperative to cut something, I may simultaneously reconnect something else that is not usually related to it. Connecting and disconnecting are integral parts of the process.

DS: There is a sense in which this piece evokes a rebellion against technology. During the French Revolution, rebels cut down the street lamps, as mentioned by the social historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch in his book Disenchanted Night. This was a political appropriation of darkness, not of light, a return to a shadowy realm where rebellion against authority could more easily occur. In this sense one of the material and perceptual effects of the French Enlightenment was more darkness in public spaces during revolutionary upheavals.

MdB: Streetlights are effective instruments for controlling public space.

DS: This brings out a hidden resonance with historical realities that have been largely forgotten.

MdB: By the way I was also seeing this emphasis on the vertical as representation of authority. Many of my works resist verticality.

DS: Isn’t there a piece called Resistance?

MdB: That piece is called The opacity of the body. It’s from 1997.

It consists of a glass of red wine connected to an electric circuit. Because of the resistance of the wine the light barely turns on.

DS: It is flickering…

MdB: Many things are interesting here. First, the displacement of wine in an electric circuit. In many words this displacement of an object in a new context always produces new perceptions. Wine has this rich symbolic history. But I like how the symbol becomes physically active.

DS: It is like when you drink… it transforms your consciousness into drunkenness.

MdB: What I discover in this system is that resistance is linked to power. Because it needs the power to resist. And power needs resistance to circulate. There is no power without resistance; there is no resistance without power. Furthermore,  this seemingly closed system is actually produces loss. What we are prevented from seeing in this piece—and this is the most interesting part— is loss. This loss escapes from the system which produces it. And this entropy for me is art or the possibility of thinking outside of the limit of a system 

DS: When I saw the piece, the first thing I thought was that it was, along with being a kind of anti-experiment, it was a kind of anti-miracle, a counter symbol to the Eucharistic transubstantiation.

MdB: The problem with representation is that symbols, basically, are dead. Here I’m reactivating the symbol with electricity. A sort of artistic defibrillation.

DS: What do you mean?

MdB: Because the wine truly resists, truly puts up resistance.

DS: Its like when you drink the wine and then you get drunk. It’s not just a symbol, It also acts upon you. 

MdB: And brings about a reflection on power that is close to the analyses of Foucault, and in particular to the way he relates resistance to power. Because Foucault didn’t see resistance as something outside the system, he saw it as something--- 

DS: ---circulating, capillary within the system. The intertwinement of strategies of power and of resistance.

MdB: He did not give a moral value to power; on the contrary he said that power can also reside in people who resist. What matters is what you do, not who you are. He did not uphold the conventional separation of resistance and power.

DS: Tell me about the piece made up of looped stairs.

MdB: This is Revolutions, I took the vector of progress and turn it back on itself.

DS: But this brings up the whole question of cycles versus linear progress.

For instance, as when you combine a raw natural object with a modern technical condition. As if to short-circuit contemporary technology and progress. There is the piece with the log and the magnet. Unplugging the piece breaks the circle. What is it called?

MdB: Logged On.

DS: More than one person has said that your work is situated in a precarious area between an interest in capturing randomness and the forms of precision generated by control. You seem to have this constant will to shape the work between these two extremes.

MdB: You talk like if I was expressing myself in my work. But I am not.

DS: You are right.

MdB: Maybe expression is valid when it is applied to the idea of a material outpouring, like vomiting. But when I throw up I have a specific reason: when we do not control the result, it produces unexpected results that are sometimes more interesting than intentionally driven ones.

DS: Coming back to the point we made earlier about verticality. What do you think about this piece in New Orleans, Majestic made up of streetlamps at all angles from a common center.

MdB: That one is folding the landscape. The reason for this title is that this piece was first made to be installed next to a funeral home called Majestic in New Orleans. In this work I fold the landscape around an axes to create diagonal vector with the street light. The result is a stellate object.

DS:  This reminds me of the work of the expert on prehistory André Le Roi Gourhan, who suggested that early homo sapiens is the end of a long evolution from the quadruped condition to the conquest of the vertical axis through an upright posture. And he said the moment the human came into its own, was the moment of pure verticality. At this moment, the eyes could survey the horizon as a continuous strip. Then the brain-stem begins to build itself around the visible, the mental function could then develop to its greatest capacity. Man, standing upright, became master of all he surveyed, at least potentially.

MdB: Also, I was thinking that this was a Baroque piece, because it was about folding…

DS : As in Deleuze’s reading of the Baroque. Yes but your work ultimately is richer then any of these theoretical models.

MdB: What do you think about the piece Silent Screaming, the one that present a silent manifestation of sound.

DS: A very interesting piece. So interesting because it is an alarm that is silent, muffled in space.

MdB: It is an apparatus that is actually quite complex…the pump, the alarm, the wires..etc. Yet it is based on this principle: that sound can’t travel in a vacuum.

DS: Looks like a bomb, an explosive device from a James Bond film.

MdB: All of this to produce silence.          

DS: It’s a bit like having to keep as quiet as possible when having sex. Your work often returns in new ways, odd ways, to the erotic.

MdB: Do you think so?

DS: Like the lightbulb that loses its virginity but continues to retain her purity, her inner light. Even after the bulb is broken. The name of this piece is 100 Watts / 3 Watts.

MdB: Should I call it the Virgin.

DS: The light itself, the continually glowing filament, is like the continuous orgasm.

This should be called The Virgin Lost Her Virginity.

Very Duchampian. The Bride stripped bare

How about Lost Virginity. Like Virginite perdu. Like Objet perdu.

MdB: All these things are made from ideas, concepts. Many pre-exist the object, which draws concepts to itself. I want to talk about this piece which utilizes randomness: Drunken Brawl.

DS: The title has no exact French equivalent, except perhaps Bagarre d’ivrogne.

MdB: Seeing this piece in the context of the other works, many of which are technically activated. It makes you think there is something behind it we cannot see.

DS: But its just the wind blowing the cans about randomly.

MdB: Its hard to believe at first that there is no motivating technology here. Each can has a life of its own. It is the conjugation of found objects by found experiences.

DS: Do you think there is something interesting to say about how objects enter into relation with each other, as, for instance, the gun twisted in a spiral. A three-step process: first you take a gun, then you twist it into a spiral, then you place it on top of a fireplace.

And then, to top it all off, it is impossible to fire!

MdB: It is quite possible to fire.

DS: It shoots itself.

MdB: No, it fires inside.

DS: That’s extremely subtle and extremely interesting. This reminds me of various phenomena of non-differentiation like embryos before their sexual characteristics arise. Something hermaphroditic about this.

MdB: I see it as a gun that had a sex change. It is like taking the penis, but repositioning it inside the body.

DS: Haha. Like the piece that is a penis one moment and a vagina the next.

MdB: Its called Introversion.

DS: Like a materialization of the dialectic—negative and positive exchange. Energy is released. Oscillation: one becoming the other.

MdB: Inside out.

DS: It’s like the Hegelian dialectic, in one of its moments. My reading of Hegel, maintains that the negative is the only positive force. The only thing that’s positive is the negative. The only thing that matters in history is the negative.

MdB: But we should place it in the work. You know a vagina is like a sock it can be turned inside out and made into a penis. A penis, conversely, can go inside if you do a sex change. The idea is something positive that can go inside out. Because ultimately Hegel was looking for identity, and this thing is pure difference.

DS: He was looking for the identity in difference. In fact, to be precise, the dialectic is the identity of identity and difference.

MdB: He’s interested in the way that progress is made between the negativity and the positivity. There is no progress here. To think of an object that goes inside out, that’s different than Hegel.

DS: What would the fireplace say if it could speak?

MdB: I wanted to place this rifle, I didn’t know how …so the fireplace….has a kind of…a kind of pedestal. The work thus acquires a fetish character. It underscores this fetish character. Though already a fetish in our society, guns here on the other hand become a second-order fetish, one that talks about itself, is mirroring itself. One might describe it as a self-conscious fetish.

DS: It’s a critique of the fetish.

MdB: No, its an extreme fetish. I needed the fireplace, to bring out the fetish character even more. I’m not criticizing the fetish, I’m amplifying it.

DS: All fetishization involves a paradox because you don’t have the object. At least as a totality.

MdB: This piece is placed next to : Pile. This piece is the opposite of the fetish. A fetish cut into parts.

DS: But the fetish is always already cut into parts. Like the classic psychoanalytic example of the body part which is more erotically important than the whole body. In any case there mere fact you place it in an art gallery makes into a fetish.

MdB: That’s one reading. Another reading is that it is an object that de-objectifies itself.




Dan Sherer

Dr. Daniel Sherer teaches Architectural History and Theory at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (1998 to the present) and at the Yale School of Architecture (2008 to the present). He received his PhD from the Harvard University Department of the History of Art and Architecture in 2000. His areas of research include Italian Renaissance and Baroque architecture and art from 1400 to 1750, Modern Architecture from 1900 to 1970, contemporary architecture, historiography and theory, and contemporary art, frequently in relation to architecture.

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