Theory Course

Master of Fine Arts, Faculty of Fine Art Music and Design University of Bergen

 2015-2018, KMD University of Bergen


theory course and thesis supervision

The course material includes an interdisciplinary selection of key texts, which will allow us to drift through  a network of questions and concepts belonging to art theory and history, visual studies, media studies, philosophy, anthropology and literature. We will engage in discussions of the fluctuating identity of images and artefacts, modes of visibility and performativity. The selection of concepts and texts creates a open constellation, and provides model of how to work with conceptual tools without losing the key issues of one’s own creative practice out of sight. For each session  we will read two texts, which examine a similar object in different perspectives, and thus create a productive tension or counter-point each other. The texts will be introduced by a short lecture to be followed by a group discussion. The students will develop skills to formulate questions in a productive way, and to mobilise the potential of the selection of theoretical fragments into their own research. The border between the theory and creative practice is understood as porous and allows for interpenetration of ideas and approaches.

By participating in the lecture-seminar series the students develop skills to read, research and debate. In addition to that, practical issues related to research and writing will be addressed in the writing workshop. Writing an MA text is a challenging task, which means engaging with ideas, images, objects, and contexts and understanding and re-imagining them. The writing workshop and the individual tutorials are designed to help the students to develop skills to formulate relevant question that strengthen their artistic practices, and simultaneously allow them to position their work in a broader context. Next to conceptualising and contextualising key issues in their practises, the students gradually develop a voice of their own. In addition to the lecture-seminar and the writing workshops there will be individual tutorials for which the students can sign up every month. 

Key words: materiality, infrastructure, anarchy, potentiality, death, medium, artefact, historical object, trash, fragment, document, evidence, temporality, anachronism, image-montage, Mnemosyne Atlas, image-collection, mimicry, invisibility, performativity, gift economy, entropy, boredom, refusal of work, post-critical, antagonism, iconoclasm, spectacle, appropriation, drifting, archive, apparatus, display, historicity, violence, mimesis, essay, site-specificity, aesthetic object

We will read selection of texts and fragments by: Alexander Nagel, Maurizio Lazzarato, Martin Warnke, Guy Debord, Theodor Adorno, Georges-Didi Huberman, Jacques Rancière, Chaire Bishop, Chantal Mouffe, Hal Foster, Mladen Dolar, Philippe-Alain Michaud, Giorgio Agamben, Michel Foucault, Roger Caillois, Julia Kristeva, Alfred Gell, Jonathan Crary, Miwon Kwon, Peter Sloterdijk, Gilles Deleuze, Hans Belting, Bruno Latour, Dario Gamboni, Alfred Gell, Christopher Bollas Joseph Leo Koerner, Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida, Reiner Schurmann, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jorge Luis Borges, Georges Perec, Raul Ruiz, Italo Calvino.

This is a list out of which I select texts for eight sessions. The program is flexible and will respond to the interests of the group. 

Writing Workshop, monthly on Tuesday 10:00 - 11:30

Few examples:

Inadvertently Critical: Mistaking and Unmasking as Forms of Critique

We will contemplate a double scene involving the misadventures of critical thought and mistaking art for refuse. Ranciere diagnoses a reversal of the role of the procedures of critical tradition, which “still function very well” but in the condition of “a complete reversal of their orientation and supposed ends.” How are we to locate a genuinely critical moment in art practices, which claim to assume the sovereign position of critical voice-over of reality? This requires a slight, yet significant shift of focus, from the mode of critique as unmasking to one that creates dissensus. Gamboni invites us to consider the multiple (mis-)adventures of the artwork, in particular the ready-made. What happens when it is inadvertently taken from its pedestal and used in its original function? The power net that secures its criticality and history collapses, art and reality overlap, and quite heated legal debates ensue…

Jacques Ranciere, "The Misadventures of Critical Thought" In: The Emancipated Spectator, trans.Gregory Eliot (London: Verso, 2009)

Dario Gamboni, "Mistaking Art for Refuse" In: The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism Since the French Revolution (London: Reaktion Books, 1997)


Anthropocene: Diagonal Science and the Species Homo from a Termite Perspective

The term anthropocene defines humans as the actors who have assumed the “administration of the earth,” and nature as their passive backdrop. Peter Sloterdijk’s analysis of the term, beyond the scope of the scientific discourse of geophysics, outlines the complexity of the question of establishing our responsibility or agency. In an apocalyptic perspective, associated with advanced capitalism and the development of technology, humans have to step back, or aside from their central position as a an actor against the backdrop of nature, and learn how to cooperate in a network  “in which the actors of today’s world generate their existence in the mode of co-immunity.” The sociologist and philosopher associated with the Surrealist movement, Roger Caillois proposes a line of thinking and analysis, which will have to bracket the anthropocentric point of view. Diagonal science does not explain “certain certain puzzling facts observed in terms of man,” but on the contrary, it explains man terms of behavioural forms found throughout species. Some insects engage in behaviours like mimicry, which exceed the simple law of survival and indicate that nature can pursue  excess, luxury and pleasure. In fact, the law of survival, in a certain sense, can be considered as a simple anthropomorphic projection determined by concepts of finality and utility (very much like the logic of capitalism).  Can we then consider nature in a way which liberates it from finality of that logic? Stefan Themerson offers us a shift of perspective which might allow us to see things differently, perhaps more clearly. His novel Professor Mmaa’s Lecture examines the species homo from an insect point of view. A  group of termite scientists belonging to a termite society with its science, politics and revolutionary struggles, plan to capture a homo and study it. We will read a section of professor Mmaa’s lecture, which explains his theories about the Bold Ape.

Peter Sloterdijk, “The Anthropocene: A Process-State at the Edge of Geohistory?” In: Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies, ed. Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin (London: Open Humanities Press, 2015)

Roger Caillois, “Diagonal Science” In: The Edge of Surrealism: A Roger Caillois Reader, ed. Claudine Frank (London: Duke University Press, 2003)

Stefan Themerson, Professor Mmaa’s Lecture, foreword by Bertrand Russel (New York: The Overlook Press, 1984), Foreword, Chapter Two


Future Remains: Of Time Folds, Ruins and Trash

The lifecycle of objects involves transition from being a commodity to becoming trash (Julian Stallabrass). This process of loss of use value, is essentially a liberation of objects from their identity. At this moment objects are transformed into stubborn matter that stares back at us, telling us that we a guilty of consuming too much, and too fast. Is there anything valuable to trash? We will explore the possible afterlives of trash  and the long-lasting fascination of artists with obsolete objects and sites. After some time, these material residues can become a historical objects, indexical fragments of the past. Artists have a long existing fascination with ruins - from the  Romantic fragment to the figure of the outmoded, which for the Surrealists had a revolutionary and creative promise. Robert Smithson’s text is an account of a journey to a terrain of decayed monuments. He called them “ruins in reverse” because they are situated in a strange fold in time, between being built and falling in decay, resonating both with an unknowable future to come and a immemorial past. Ruins are in a process of constant change, of entropy. Andreas Huyssen argues that ruins function as screens on which modernity projects asynchronous temporalities and it obsession with the passing of time.

Julian Stallabrass, “Trash” In The Object Reader, eds. Fiona Candlin and Rainford Guins (London: Routledge, 2009), pp.406-425

Andreas Huyssen, “Authentic Ruins” In: Ruins, ed. Brian Dillon (Whitechapel Gallery and the MIT Press, 2011), pp. 52-55

Robert Smithson, “A Tour of the Monuments of the Passaic, New Jersey”Artforum (December 1967), pp. 52-56


Ways of (Not) Seeing: On Spectacle and Mis-Recognition

" Images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream, and the former unity of life is lost for­ ever. Apprehended in a partial way, reality unfolds in a new generality as a pseudo-world apart, solely as an object of contemplation. The tendency toward the specialisation of images-of-the-world finds its highest expression in the world of the autonomous image, where deceit deceives itself. The spectacle in its generality is a concrete inversion of life, and, as such, the autonomous movement of non-life." Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle

The dictionary definition of the  term “post-truth” states that it is an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Its increased use is very much related to recent political events, which demonstrated (yet another) crisis of collective modes of seeing and deciding and indicates that we are all caught in our own “echo chamber” to use filmmaker Adam Curtis’ expression. In the present moment Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle appears strikingly relevant. It never lost its relevance with its sharp analysis of a reality of woven by collective fantasies we live by in the contemporary capitalist spectacle. The lecture will focus on Debord's ideas of the spectacle and questions as what are its effects in the present moment, can we device strategies in order to reclaim our experience in the condition of its increasingly accelerating mode? Hito Steyerl’s  analysis of the networked production of images, surveillance and effects of the “machinic vision” on our lives provides another angle of analysis of the way various computational technologies have silently assumed the power to shape reality. 

Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone books, 1992), Chapter One "Separation Perfected," pp. 11-25

Hito Steyerl, “A Sea of Data: Apophenia and Pattern (Mis-)Recognition” e-flux journal # 72, April 2016


Image Infrastructures: Apparatus, Code, Corpse

The lecture will focus on a somewhat strange, polychronic constellation at the heart of which is Maurice Blanchot’s famous essay TheTwo Versions of the Imaginary. We will discuss the double visibility which characterises the apparatus, images of the figure of Death, but also the more contemporary object of digital code. Next to Blanchot we will read two texts, very different from each other, but focusing on a conceptual question which is at the heart of our understanding of images. Alexander Galloway’s discussion of digital infrastructure, and the closing pages of an important and beautifully written article by Joseph Koerner discussing the complex visibility of the the fictional character of Death in the painting of Hans Baldung Grien (1484-1545). Considering those images together, we will discuss the question of what kind of visibility emerges when we put together the apparatus, the medium, the code, and yes, Death, all of them being figures of self-referentiality. They emerge as images which refer to the operations of their own making and their own material, and media. This allegorical visibility is characterised by opacity  of a material presence which splits itself in two. It is the visibility of an infrastructure. As Blanchot puts it: “we might also recall that a tool, when damaged, becomes its image …In this case the tool, no longer disappearing into its use, appears. This appearance of the object is that of resemblance and reflection: the object's double, if you will. The category of art is linked to this possibility for objects to "appear," to surrender, that is, to the pure and simple resemblance behind which there is nothing -- but being. Only that which is abandoned to the image appears, and everything that appears is, in this sense, imaginary.”

Maurice Blanchot, “Two Versions of the Imaginary” In: The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln University of Nebraska Press, 1982), pp. 254-263 (pages 169-177 in the PDF file)

Alexander R. Galloway, “Jodi’s Infrastructure” e-flux journal #74 June 2016

Joseph Leo Koerner, “The Mortification of the Image: Death as a Hermeneutic in Hans Baldung Grien” Representations, 1985:10, pp. 93-94


Nature Fictions and the Art of Being Idle

We will open the theory program of the year with two consecutive seminars on boredom, laziness and on nature as a scene of (political) fiction. The disengagement of the mind from the crushing imperative to produce and to be constantly active, teaches the existential importance of the slow mode of operating and of listening to the hum of one’s own thought. The resistance to work is a figure of the work of art as a resistance and resonates with the Blanchotian motif of worklessness as the true mode of the work of art. Nature, respectively  could be understood as a scene of the fictions of artists’ work, and of the fictions of the political, and yes, of the fantastic. Being art’s classical object of imitation, nature is a subject of both artistic and political invention.

Maurizio Lazzarato, Marcel Duchamp and the Refusal of Work, trans. Joshua David Jordan (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2014), pp.5-24

Giorgio Agamben, “Profound Boredom” In: The Open: Man and Animal, trans. Kevin Attell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), pp. 63-71

Italo Calvino, “The Distance of the Moon” In: Cosmicomics, trans. Martin McLaughlin (London: Penguin Books, 2002), pp. 3-20

Martin Warnke, “Natural Forces and Natural Forms” In: Political Landscape:The Art History of Nature (London: Reaction Books, 2004) pp. 89-99