The World is Already Toured: Bruce Barber and the Figuring of Littoral Art
Marc J. Léger – December 2003
Sentence number eight in Bruce Barber’s Sentences on Littoral Art (1998) reads as follows: “Littoralist artists acknowledge Marx’s injunction in his 11th Thesis on Feuerbach, that it is not up to philosophers (artists) to simply interpret (represent) the world; the point is to change it.” In this reworking of Marx’s sentence, Barber asks us to make an equivocation between the figure of the philosopher and that of the artist, a move that stands on its head Hegel’s theory of the subsumption of art into its own philosophy. The artist in this reworking is made continuous with the world. The second displacement is the slide from interpretation to representation, making the meaning of social change and transformation to be different from representation. Marx’s phrase is echoed by Guy Debord in his film, The Society of the Spectacle, in which Debord stated: “The world is already filmed; it is now a matter of transforming it.”
We have in Barber and in Debord a negation of representation as the objectification or reification of the social relations of egocentric calculation, that is, as an image of life that is the historical reality of the official time of global capitalist production. The littoral artist is the artist who reasons about this history but who does so not strictly within the autonomous sphere of cultural production but according to the life-process of society. It has become the conceit of contemporary cultural practice to consider theory (representation) to be of necessity involved in practical social engagement. For the critical notion of the relative autonomy of cultural theory, there is a concordant ideology of relative autonomy. With the merging of the culture industries and the avant-gardes in the 1960s, the theories of autonomy have gone down along with the orthodoxies of economism, of which they were a negation. We are no longer today in a world where the individual has only a dim or false memory of his or her past. The totality of the spectacle has rather reached a limit and has ripened to the degree where the image world has become once again struck with the knowledge of its historical processes. This knowledge finds expression in the claims that are made with regard to democratic deliberation. Representation unites the real and the possible in a dialogical contradiction. If the littoralist artist resists the felicity of representation, it is only inasmuch as it exists within circumscribed social practices and economic modalities as pure symbolic exchange.
The imposed cultural conditions of institutional privilege and marginalization are those that Barber’s recent practice of littoral art has sought to overcome and to mediate in relation to non-institutional sites, including those that relate to public opinion about the distribution of wealth and the specialization of power in contemporary society. Barber’s work as a littoralist and his writings on littoral art practice have addressed collaborative projects that are concerned with pressing social problems, including homelessness, refugee claims, environmental resource and waste management by non-experts, urban development, and poverty. Littoralist art projects are concerned with community work as productive labour and as part of a politics of reciprocity and gift giving that Barber associates with Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of the “logic of practice.” Littoralist art is postcolonial with regard to its link to art institutions and represents a critical articulation of the artworld’s demands on practice in terms of cultural sophistication. The sophistication of high theory and poststructural representation is disarticulated and projected back into critical practice, using all of the insights provided by theory and cultural politics. The practices of littoral art make use of whatever formal strategies may already be in place in order to facilitate “politically efficacious art.” As Barber himself explains,
Within specialized art world discourse they could be framed within the so-called live art, performance art genres but perhaps they are better appreciated and understood as artist initiated examples of collaborative, operative, engaged or interventionist cultural practice, and, as I have attempted to suggest, examples of communicative action in action.
In The Logic of Practice, Bourdieu considers the persistence of ritual and conventions in the maintenance and transformation of social practices. He insists that there is never in culture a necessity imposed on social practice, but instead a kind of tacit acknowledgement that social rites exist; in other words, that there is something rather than nothing. In the social production and reproduction of the world, the desire of the other calls the subject into a world of social meanings and social structures that is never fully conventional but always open to contradiction and ambiguity.
Within the movement of history and in the space between subjectivity and social reality, there has occurred a shift in the giving of the self to the world. What was once phrased as “What is to be done” has changed into “What can I do?” The subject of history was a product of enlightenment modernity. We are now self-knowingly working as split subjects, marked differently and pursuing different priorities with regard to trans-discursive reasonings on history, power, and desire. “What can I do?,” however, is only the official version of the view that little can be done that would change the direction of modernization in its spectacular stage of global production, a denial of effectivity with regard to legislative norms. For this reason, Barber works with the former phrasing as a proclamation, as a claim on the present and on what is possible. He has done so in his recent works by making identifications with the practices of those who are excluded or made visibly marginal by the socially privileged (i.e. motorized, employed, consumptive) forms of urban practice – the conspicuous dispositions of the homeless and of prisoners performing hours of community service. The reification of established uses of social space, including that of tourism, hides the way that we are both privately and publicly involved in the production and reproduction of those figures of exclusion. By inhabiting a complex structure that covers both ‘What can I do?’ and ‘What is to be done,’ Barber makes claims to models of interventionist and exemplary activity. To recognize his imposture is to get an eyeful of the regimes of representation that give rise to littoral consciousness. This recognition is not possible outside of the field of representation; it inscribes representation into the manifold of the social production and relations of meaning and makes it operative.
v See Bruce Barber, “Littoralist Art Practice and Communicative Action,” (1996) at www.novelsqaut.com and “The Gift in Littoral Art Practice,” (2000) at www.imageandtext.org.nz.
v See for example, Saskia Sassen, “Whose City Is It? Globalization and the Formation of New Claims,” Public Culture 8:2 (1996) 205-223.
v Barber, “Littoralist Art Practice.”
v Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.
v For a thoughtful reading of public sphere theorizing in light of poststructural theories of subjectivity, and one to which I would associate Barber’s artistic practice, see Noëlle McAffe, Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000.