Fillip — Folio B

Chant d’Échange
Antonia Hirsch and Olaf Nicolai

Antonia Hirsch – Two summers ago, when I started re-searching the idea of “economies of desire,” you lent me a tonne of books on this topic and we had a number of conversations that were really inspiring for me. But later I thought, “Hold on, how come you have all these books on money, desire, exchange, and so on?” It’s not something that is obviously evident in your work. Then I remembered Die Gabe, a project you started in 1993, I think. It was a series of folios that each consisted of six to ten pages of loose-leaf paper. Some folios contained images or more complicated die-cut components, and the contributors, of which there are seventeen to date, are from all sorts of disciplines, not just art. Thinking about this work, I wondered why you chose to call it Die Gabe (The Gift) because, in many ways, one could say it’s an edition like any other.

Olaf Nicolai – The precepts of Die Gabe were not quite those of a regular edition; I wanted to create an opening, something that decisively didn’t perform a self-documentation through the presentation of my own works but instead featured the works of others that were important to me. The idea was to produce something on behalf of somebody else and to make it freely available, even though at the time I didn’t have access to significant economic resources. Today it would be considered modest what one of those folios cost to produce back then, but I probably put the equivalent of a month’s worth of income toward each cahier. At the same time, obviously, this gesture of giving something was tied to expectations that translated into one condition: those who I invited were to refer in their contributions to the work of yet others in turn—artists, writers, scientists, or to found objects that were somehow important to them.

Hirsch – The way you describe it, the project seems not only to borrow its name from Mauss’s famous essay, but it also seems to refer quite explicitly to the kula1—the gift circle that Mauss describes.

Nicolai – That is part of the premise of the project, but even though I had read Mauss’s essay on the gift, I don’t think I was specifically aware of the kula. The text I remember reading at the time describes the potlatch, and I was interested in how the gift isn’t entirely neutral, how it is always coloured by something—that there are always social interests negotiated along the way. The gift is commonly understood as something impartial, or indifferent, and you have to look a bit more closely to figure out that a gift can be more threatening than even an overt challenge. And by that I mean not only the poisoned gift, but rather that in the act of giving, a negotiation takes place that is bound by certain rules or etiquette, something akin to diplomacy.

Hirsch – ...where a certain kind of debt is being put into place.

Nicolai – Yes. A relationship is being created. And also a kind of community comes into place. I don’t mean in the sense of an artist group—more like a symbolic order that is held together by a symbolic “ribbon” that represents the give and take in the group in which one shares, but that cannot be joined at will.

Hirsch – But Die Gabe wasn’t your first publication project, was it?

Nicolai – No. The first time that I did something like a publication project was a book called LECTION (Lesson), which was basically the first catalogue that was co-produced by me and my gallery, Eigen+Art [Berlin]. This was in 1990, and Gerd Harry Lybke [the co-founder and owner of the gallery] had the idea that we could also do catalogues, something that had just then become possible. Before [the wall came down] this wasn’t an option [in the GDR, the German Democratic Republic—former socialist East Germany] or, if you did produce publications, they had a very exclusive character. If a book was produced with a very low print run—say one hundred copies or less—it was treated like an artist’s book, which meant it didn’t have to be presented to the censors for approval. After [the wall came down] we could do larger runs and proper distribution became possible. Around this time, he [Lybke] met Erich Maas2 who didn’t yet run his own publishing house. Maas was one of those dyed-in-the-wool Kreuzbergers from the old West Berlin scene.3 He suggested doing a publication that would be very simple, without frills. He sat down with me one afternoon and explained how we could produce something with a run of one thousand copies for one thousand German marks. So I thought about it and two weeks later I showed up at his place with a box of material. I told him that I didn’t really want to picture my work in this publication, but rather show what I was thinking about while I made work: texts, pictures, all sorts of stuff. Then we arranged the material, I told him how things connected for me, and we tried to somehow transpose this onto pages. The finished book became a kind of sourcebook; the next two books I produced by myself, and together they became something of a trilogy that was called Material.

Geschichte und Eigensinn (1981) by Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge was a really important reference for this project.4 It’s a kind of cultural history where text and image are brought together in what seems to be an associative way—treated very equivalently, not only to make theory more tangible, but also to evoke a different dimension that, in a purely textual form, in pure discourse, doesn’t become accessible. Whereas in Kluge and Negt’s book the text provides a narrative into which the elements of the collage are embedded, in my publications I tried to push the principle of collage further without the mediating text. In my case, the narrative comes about simply through the way in which the elements are tied in with one another.

Hirsch – The particular way in which concepts are articulated seems relevant in terms of your publications, but also in relation to conceptual art in general: the circulation of concepts is important, but if the concept is reduced to language alone, something is potentially missing. Images and objects circulate differently in our experiential sphere—which is spatial and temporal. When we encounter texts, especially more demanding ones, we engage with them deliberately and we have to invest time into understanding them, whereas images we are often exposed to unintentionally, for example in the form of advertising, especially in public space.

Nicolai – Conceptual art was important. I was really fascinated by it in the mid ’80s, but I have to say that conceptual art, in its really clear, straight form—like the early works of Lawrence Weiner, [Joseph] Kosuth, or Robert Barry—were quite foreign to me. I had seen a bit of it in reproduction, but I simply never had had the opportunity to see the works themselves, meaning that I had not had opportunity to apprehend the concepts in their entirety. The same with [Daniel] Buren: I knew the picture, but I knew neither the context the work was produced in, nor that which it responded to. And when I started, at the beginning of the 1990s, to look into these practices more deeply, I had a problem: I could follow rationally, but I always felt that the concepts only ever properly unfolded through intentionality. These artists proposed the emergence of the concept as something that had to be actively, consciously perceived—as such, this kind of intellectual reception had to become an essential aspect of the artwork. The works presupposed and directed themselves towards a necessarily self-reflexive viewer. I have to say that this apparently exclusive focus on the rational seems to me as if describing the tip of an iceberg with nothing underneath—i.e., the entire sensual dimension was being neglected, which seems symptomatic of a deep distrust of the sensible.

I encountered a similar distrust during my time at university in the 1980s when I studied, among other subjects, linguistics. There, I was introduced to [Gottlob] Frege’s5 differentiation between sense and reference, which was being applied to linguistics and semiotics, where it appeared as the differentiation between denotation and connotation. Connotation always exists in the subjective field—all the emotional aspects that are brought to a hard, core term. But when dealing with language, especially with poetic texts, this dualistic model doesn’t work. You can’t access those texts like that; you’ll end up just passing them by. You can say, “This affects me,” but if you are asked to describe how it affects you, this polarized model of language fails you. This kind of concept of language is purely functional. But what is really key, after all, is not that meaning is transmitted, but the way in which a subject relates to meaning. This is what is being articulated through language; this is the defining character of language. What I tried to do—and this is what got me interested in linguistics in the first place—was to find out whether there are any models where connotation, the mode of articulation, forms the central core and denotation, the question of meaning, becomes more or less a side effect...where the core term is more a kind of temporary consolidation that has to take place for communication to be able to occur, but that is actually movement in which one exists as an active speaker in a field circumscribed by connotation.

Hirsch – So, you are proposing almost a conflation of sense experience and emotion. Can you elaborate a bit on how you see the connections among these two?

Nicolai – I’m not trying to suggest a hierarchization of the sensible. A text that I really like because it leaves me productively confused is Jacques Lacan’s Transference. In this seminar, Lacan discusses the enjoyment experienced by the praying mantis and oral pleasure relative to the nipple.6 He very decisively dismisses the notion of the nipple as a precious object of human eroticism—as he calls it—based on a function, namely of satisfying hunger and the pleasurable memory that is attached to this process. It isn’t the satiation of hunger that is the source of pleasure, but a retroactive construction that is based on a demand and the “beyond” of love that is projected by this demand. This leads Lacan to the notion of a dialectic of desire. What I think is important here is that in sensual perception, or sensual experience, we are already dealing with a construct. It is a kind of “flexion”7 that has woven into its specific form what reflection attempts to grasp as sense.

This is relevant for art production from the perspective that libidinous passion can hardly be understood as the source of free creativity. If one were to consider libidinous passion as the source of creativity, one would have to refer not to an open and authentic libidinal structure, but to a specific formation.

This idea of an authentic libidinous structure was very palpable in the GDR of the 1980s. As a retreat from a pervasive pressure to conform, libidinal passion, authenticity, and freedom were short-circuited. Expressivity was the dominant mode and while each iteration was generated from a deeply personal position, one could observe the repetition of the same forms, images, and formulas in artistic production in general. Another path, usually one chosen by the older generation, was one of cultivated interiority, both in habitus and in their works. Gerhard Altenbourg and Carlfriedrich Claus are the most incisive representatives of this type of approach. Using the terminology of Marxist cultural sociology, one could describe theirs as a late-bourgeois style without bourgeoisie.

Hirsch – I guess you had a different perspective from artists in the West because you lived not only in a different political, but also in a different semiotic, system.

Nicolai – I was only able to perceive things through the media and through books and magazines, which meant that I didn’t experience how and under what circumstances, for example, conceptual artworks came to be made. I think this is quite important. Because what I didn’t see and couldn’t experience, and only slowly came to understand, is that even this limitation, this seeming exclusive focus on information, develops a sensual quality. For example, the works by Lawrence Weiner aren’t read, they are seen. They are pictures.

[When I first saw his work] I also lacked exposure to the universe of typography—as in advertising and other forms of publicized information that Weiner’s works refer to. That wasn’t really part of my world; I only had access to those in a very filtered way. Even though I watched West German public television or listened to the radio, these were essentially quite leftist, intellectual media, meaning that they alone didn’t really allow me to comprehend the entire spectrum of what people [in the West] were actually engaging with. I did not have access to something like BILD,8 for example. I just knew how it looked, but I never really had a chance to read it and therefore didn’t know the way in which it translated information into its design. In the case of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung,9 you have to read the consecutively written articles to gain any information. BILD, a tabloid, on the other hand, proposes ideologically problematic contents lacking in complexity, but it conveys them on multiple levels in a semiotically complex combination of language, typography, and image—like a collage.

Hirsch – In the context of this notion of the circulation of ideas, I think it could be interesting to consider how a barter system was much more present in the GDR’s economy than it was in the West. In the GDR you had to deal with all sorts of shortages that could be somewhat mitigated by bartering, whereas in the West, pretty much anything could be bought with money. So I’m wondering whether in that society, where a barter economy formed a sort of matrix that facilitated the exchange of things that made life better, or even viable, whether this particular exchange behaviour perhaps also extended to ideas?

Nicolai – For a barter economy to function, interaction between individuals is necessary. It involves processes that cannot be depersonalized, meaning that emotion plays a role in many economic processes that, in a capitalist market economy, are conducted in a much different manner. This particular economy structured the sensible differently. It assigned distinct, sometimes ideologically driven, values to sensual experience, thereby producing different emotional patterns. There was a dialectical relationship between this valuation of sense experience and emotional patterns that played out particularly within the format of the barter economy.

Whenever something is given or denied, a personal relationship is negotiated alongside that material exchange, which supercharges the situation. The GDR’s economy of scarcity that gave rise to a barter economy then generated complicities and dependencies that the Stasi were able to instrumentalize. Since much was possible only by way of favours, these could also be revoked and thereby used as leverage. And because for many this led to a very self-aware and self-conscious attitude, one occasionally had to negotiate slightly paranoid tendencies.

In addition, this particular structuring of the sensible affected what you referred to earlier with regard to an idea’s potential “tradeability” in the context of a barter economy: due to the fact that this was an economy where at times the very basics were at issue, a mere idea didn’t really have an exchange value. In other words, within this system the idea didn’t develop an object-character in the sense of me saying, “I’ll give you this idea and in exchange you’ll cook me a meal sometime.” On the contrary, communication, conversation, the exchange of ideas was almost like common property. Very rarely was there an instance where someone would say, “You’ve stolen my idea.” When you start to jealously guard your ideas—this only happens not only when you are able to exchange those ideas, but when a kind of market develops for the ideas in question. Con­ceptual art simply couldn’t possess that value [in the GDR]. If people worked conceptually, they were regarded as stimu­lating, but not so much as artists—a creative practice was perceived very much as materially contingent. Attitude became much more a medium for articulation in that these people were considered “characters” who lived a certain lifestyle that one admired. The articulation of this lifestyle alone was ascribed the status of an artwork, but there was no market that would have allowed for this to become a tradeable good.

Hirsch – Okay, I understand that—but I’m still fascinated by the question of the idea and its circulation because, as far as I understand, education was regarded as extremely important in the GDR, so one would assume that there was a certain respect for intellectualism, for a culture of ideas. Wasn’t education one of the “German” values that was upheld, while much else was rejected because it belonged to the ostensibly corrupt, capitalist, and basically fascist West Germany?

Nicolai – I would say that education in the sense of upbringing and academic learning was important. Those two were always connected. What was at stake in education and academic or professional training was the communication of very specific worldviews.

Hirsch – Also in order to predetermine specific roles for people in society?

Nicolai – That, too. After all, the GDR was a society that assumed that it could plan and design things, not only in the realm of a broad economic context, but down to the biographies of individual people.

Hirsch – So, in other words, the planned economy existed not only in a material sense, but also, possibly, in the world of ideas, and since a planned economy has no market...

Nicolai – Well, actually, it does have a market—it just functions a little differently. The GDR’s planned economy had several “markets.” The GDR had a domestic market that, in turn, was part of a larger international market that existed among socialist states. This socialist market was free of speculation, prices were fixed, and it therefore didn’t involve a very elaborate credit economy. But of course, this socialist market was inevitably and ultimately tied into an even larger, global market that also included capitalist states, so the idea of market autonomy was not viable and the Berlin Wall was a perfect metaphor for the kind of thinking on which the GDR’s economic ideology was based. This is where we get back to the question of the idea—ideology was incredibly important in this context. The state implemented measures that it could absolutely not afford: social services were offered in order to create ideological allegiances. Nobody would talk about the fact that this was an economic disaster—or, rather, no one took the few who did seriously. Seen from an economic standpoint, the most dramatic issue for the GDR was the unity of economic and social policy, a great sounding idea, one through which social housing programs, etc., were promised, but, from the outset, weren’t sustainable. Basically, a criterion was introduced into economic policy that couldn’t be economized: social contentedness. To create this condition, certain measures had to be taken. Not only because of the “socialist cause,” but also as a strategy of conciliation that became increasingly important in the race against Western consumer culture that developed in the 1960s and ’70s and that had become impossible to ignore, even in the GDR.

Hirsch – So, the economy focused on basic needs, but the desire for that which is, as it were, unnecessary—or wish fulfillment—was basically ignored as a factor contributing to a sense of contentment.

Nicolai – It’s kind of similar to what I described earlier with regard to language: an economy also doesn’t just satisfy certain needs—basic needs like food and protection from the elements—but it satisfies these needs in a particular kind of way, and thereby always exceeds the “existential” aspect of those needs. There were people who stood 100 percent behind what that state represented for them—who idealized the state regardless of what the reality might have been. If you asked them to articulate their world view, many would offer the perspective of workers at the end of the 1920s on the verge of ascending into the middle class—people whose existential needs had been taken care of. They had secure jobs, there was free education, they could partake in culture, they could take holidays, they didn’t have to worry about health care, and they could look after their families. But all of this existed only up to a certain level! It was a kind of functional fixing: cover the basic needs and add a bit extra on top. There was a complete disregard for the fact that there are dynamics that are propelled by an individual’s wishes, by desire, by all sorts of things, and that these dynamics are not only important, but that they are actually the driving factors for an individual’s biography, as well as for society as a whole and its economy. This blind spot relates to the fact that the government didn’t have any concept of innovation within an economic system. If you look closely at Marx’s theory of surplus value, there is no explanation as to why there is innovation at all. [Joseph] Schumpeter10 severely criticized this aspect of Marx’s theories. According to Marx’s thesis, an economic system would, at some point, have to grind to a halt because the rates of profit are saturated. So why do people carry on? This is where one could end up arriving at a very conservative drive theory: Is what propels us simply that we always want to be better than others, or richer, or could there also be something else that motivates us? For the GDR, motivation was a big problem. How can you motivate someone if you tell them, “You earn the same as everybody else, no matter what”? So when the GDR government started to subtly introduce various bonuses, they had to do so very carefully, because it was clear that with the bonuses, one would also introduce social differentiation.

Hirsch – And ideologically, that’s disastrous.

Nicolai – If you think this issue of desire and its role in an economy through to its logical conclusion, it means that an economy can only evolve when you permit these dynamics to remain at play. But a phenomenon like desire is something that cannot be controlled, and I mean this not only in terms of ideology. This is why it had to be restricted, and this way of thinking, this matrix, also applies to how the sensible is dealt with. It’s an old problem that you can find in the history of philosophy, specifically during the Enlightenment era. When you attempt, as [Gotthold Ephraim] Lessing tried, to convert certain bourgeois attitudes into virtues or positive values—without ordering people to act in a certain way, but, rather, by allowing them to participate in the fate of others so there can be a sort of cathartic comprehension—you start up a machine that basically participates sensually, that identifies, that acts mimetically, that mirrors. This “imagination machine” starts to play through various scenarios.... But the question then becomes: How do you stop this process again? People will not only discover the other in the process, but they will also discover the other in themselves. This means that they start to feel desires and needs that they previously didn’t even know they had! And these are desires whose virtue hadn’t been determined. I mean, it’s absurd to believe that you would know from birth which need or desire is “good” and which is “bad.” So these impulses had to be kept in check. It is a question of the interplay between the other and the Other; that is, how feelings and ethics relate to one another.

This is why during the Enlightenment era, and in particular in German Enlightenment literature, there is always the question: How can we keep passions under control? Because this instance of sensibility is not necessarily social, but it can only articulate itself through the social, and circulate in it; yet as a drive, as a motor, it can be completely asocial—at least when viewed relative to how the social is commonly understood. And that is the fascination of German Romanticism. The dynamic of sensuality was given sway in all sorts of directions, even to the point where it manifested as madness. In literature, [Johann Wolfgang von] Goethe was a figure, similar to [Ludwig van] Beethoven in music, who attempted to stem this somehow, to...

Hirsch – channel it.

Nicolai – Yes, exactly. It’s no coincidence, after all, that the entire ideological aesthetics of social realism refers back to the classics. [Georg] Lukács, for example, developed his theory based on a classical theory of symbols that stood in stark opposition to the Brechtian approach and favoured a strategy of identification for which the main reference was German literature, especially Goethe, [Friedrich] Schiller, and Thomas Mann.11 Applied to visual art, you would find these elaborated in the gestalt concept (e.g., Ernst Cassirer, Erwin Panowsky), which can be seen as an attempt to implement a semantic concept in the perception of form. Of course, form speaks to you on a sensual level, but suddenly, the senses are assigned certain values, meaning there was an attempt to introduce a value judgment at the level where there really cannot be one yet because sensibility as such carries no rational value. You can’t say, “You love incorrectly,” or “You love correctly.” All you can say is, “I love and it makes me suffer,” or “I am happy in love,” but the feeling that you describe...

Hirsch – essentially value neutral.

Nicolai – Or you can say: it is absolutely full. And that is a problem. You cannot assign value to feelings and emotions the way you assign them to decisions. And to the degree to which there is a society that conceives of itself as a didactic, evaluating society that consciously organizes itself around certain ideas, there is an attempt to establish valuation at the level of the sensible.

Hirsch – I’d like for us to get back to a couple of things that you mentioned earlier and that, in my view, specifically relate to two of your works and that are, in turn, connected to this idea of sensibility and also to corporeality. Your new project, Escalier du Chant, is a piece that was commissioned by the Neue Pinakothek Museum in Munich. For this work, you invited twelve composers to produce a cappella works based on current events to be performed on twelve Sundays throughout 2011 on the stairs of the gallery, where visitors and singers mingle during these performances. Together, the songs are intended to form a sort of chronicle of the year.12 In connection with this project, you recently stated in an interview13 that it is the spatial proximity between visi­tors and singers that produces a kind of agency, a desire to act. I thought this was an interesting point to make because what you seem to propose is that bodily empathy generates agency—which is convincing. After all, it is the body that is our “sensing machine,” and through sensory input we develop affective responses to these stimuli. In this context, I would also like to bring up another work of yours, Chant d’Amour (2003),14 a work that, in some sense, is diametrically opposed to Escalier du Chant. The work is a sort of restaging of Jean Genet’s film Un chant d’amour (1950). Yet your piece is without actors, and you introduce an element of crass commercialism. Where Genet’s film uses a natural straw as one of its central elements, you introduce a McDonald’s drinking straw. This work also trades on sensuality and affect, but not, let’s say, a more neutral or empathic affect as in Escalier. Rather, in reference to Genet, it has a clearly erotic tone. Yet through the work we find this absolute physical isolation of the body, not only in the Genet film, but also in your rendition of it, where there is not even a body present. So in Escalier du Chant there is the suggestion of a political motivation—partially because of the current events that become the composers’ inspiration, while Genet’s film is also highly political. Not only did it present homosexuality at a time when it was a social taboo, but his, as well as your, work also represents subversive power relationships in which (state) authority cannot ultimately control (physical) desire. So I guess what I’m asking is how do you see the relationship between affect—in all its various forms—and something like agency or political consciousness?

Nicolai – Well, what fascinated me so much about Un chant d’amour, aside from the setting, was the role of the voice, which, in this case, is absent.

Hirsch – Exactly. One wonders, why is the piece called Un chant d’amour? There is no song; in fact, it’s a silent film. You have been dealing with voice, and its absence, quite a bit recently—for example, in your work Innere Stimme (Inner Voice, 2011).15

Nicolai – That was a development that surprised me as well.... In Chant d’Amour, I didn’t initially plan to do anything with voice, but directly next to the Volume! Foundation, who had invited me to make the work for their space in Rome, there is a prison called Regina Coeli (Queen of Heaven). It’s named after a monastery, which used to be in this location. The building is striking not only because it is immediately recognizable as a prison, but in particular because of its sight barriers. These are tilted barriers in front of the windows so the prisoners can’t look out, but light can still enter the cells from above. These barriers look somewhat like minimalist objects. They formed the basis of one of the works in the gallery where I reconstructed such a barrier and installed it on a wall inside the space. Anyway, the sight barriers have the effect that outside of visiting hours, the inmates communicate with their families through the windows by calling to one another, like in a call-and-response-style song. The crazy thing is that Regina Coeli is also the name of such an antiphon—it is one of the important Marian antiphons of the Christian Church. When I became aware of all this, I realized I wanted to do something that had to do with voice. I wanted to find a way in which I could connect the idea of the voice with the space, specifically this kind of cell space that doesn’t permit you to look beyond its walls. This is how the straw became a central focus point. In Genet’s film, a cigarette is shared through this straw, which is inserted into a hole in a wall that separates the cells of the film’s two protagonists—which is to say, breath is shared. I had begun to increasingly view singing as an alternate kind of breathing and this is how, thinking about the project in Rome, the space opened up for me. After all, the drinking straw indicates the absent body, because the straw needs a mouth, and the mouth somehow evokes a body.

Hirsch – Or rather, now that we are talking about this, it occurs to me—though perhaps this is a little too literal—that the walls of the cell could also be read as the boundaries of subjectivity, where the straw becomes the only opening...

Nicolai – That was also the reason why I decided to use a McDonald’s drinking straw. The drinking straw has, of course, an etymological and historical link to agricultural straw—a material that has many metaphorical connotations, as in “to clutch at straws.” In a strange way, the drinking straw can come to also represent nature.... So to counter this, I wanted to introduce an object that refuses this superficial naturalization, and the McDonald’s straw fulfilled that criteria. Plus, there are a large number of McDonald’s franchises in the city centre of Rome (and in close proximity to the gallery), which, for Italy, is a big deal. I became interested in articulating a paradox, namely between, on the one hand, the straw at which you might be clutching—or in this case, with reference to Genet’s film, the straw that pretends to facilitate exchange—and, on the other hand, the straw that is connected to an economy that is incapable of reasonably satisfying needs and desires. This is the crux of the matter for me, the paradox that arises from the connection between the needs and desires that articulate themselves through an economic structure and the needs and desires that are ostensibly satisfied by that economic structure—I think it would be reductive to describe this constellation simply as alienation....

Something that seems relevant here is that Genet’s film was shot in La Rose Rouge in Paris, a night club that belonged to the financier Nico Papatakis, and the actors really were guests of his club and the Montmartre gay scene.

Hirsch – How do you mean, it would be reductive to describe this constellation simply as alienation?

Nicolai – In a short text16 Pierre Klossowski proposes that the mercantile character of the libidinous has been completely misunderstood in modernity. By this he isn’t suggesting an economic determinism, but he speaks of a dialectic of customs and usage. The use object is inseparable from the customs of usage, as he puts it. If you take this idea seriously, then the differentiation between use value and exchange value would not result in a simple opposition. It would be too limited to talk about a perversion of the use value through exchange value. Klossowski takes this even further by comprehending economic structure as a substructure of affect. This in turn means that the affective isn’t simply structured by economic norms, but that affects are articulated within economic structures and that the formation of these affects takes place through these structures. So, affect and economic structure don’t oppose each other. Differentiation of the economy is paralleled in an altered sensuality, in transformations of the sensorium. I don’t mean that there are different feelings, “new” feelings—what transpires are other complexes of articulation and actions through which feelings are being “formatted” and distinguished. Jonathan Crary lays this out beautifully in his Techniques of the Observer.17 What seems to be mutually exclusive is actually mutually constitutive: Crary demonstrates that alienation through modes of production, the emancipation of the senses, and the constitution of an individual focused on self-actualization are interconnected and mutually contingent. He describes precisely how the disciplining of factory labourers, scientific research on the human organism, and the specialization of the senses are mere facets of one and the same process.

Hirsch – What I liked about your choice of the McDonald’s straw is that it pulls you back to a reality that is in almost brutal contrast to the Genet film, which is elegiac in many ways. At the same time, your introduction of such a prosaic element heightens the transcendental quality of the desire that the work evokes—the will to connect and exchange. In that moment it seems basically to refuse commodification.

At the same time it’s really fascinating how, especially when we look at Chant d’Amour, the voice marks the moment of subject formation. The characters in Genet’s film, like the inmates at Regina Coeli, have had their freedom restricted. In other words, they do not have access to all aspects of liberty, and are thus without agency, without “voice.” And yet, as you describe, the prisoners of Regina Coeli seem to actually reclaim subjectivity through the use of their physical voices.

Nicolai – Chant d’Amour actually also involves a poster that didn’t get so much attention in the context of the exhibition, but it’s important to me. It’s a poster with a quote by Walter Benjamin that I wanted to put forward and that relates to the work in the gallery, but that isn’t connected to it in any obvious way. This text by Benjamin18 reflects on whether, or to what degree, any power may have the right to restrict the satisfaction of needs and on what basis that restriction might be brought about. This is a very early text of Benjamin’s where he more or less posits a condition of violence as a problem in itself and where he distinguishes between secular and divine violence. This is an almost gnostic dualism, and in it, violence, state violence, is almost always presented as negative. Actually, Benjamin constructs his argument with much more complexity, but it is often read in this very dualistic way.

The point about this dialectic, as Genet presents it, is that not only are the police arbiters of violence, but that violence also plays an important role in fuelling desire. Thus violence can have a structuring effect, allowing certain formations to function. So the conclusion is not to look for a condition that is free of violence, but to ask what violence, in what form, and under what circumstances is one prepared to support? Basically it means opening up room for negotiation.

Hirsch – What do you mean by “support”?

Nicolai – To endure, to tolerate, but also to exercise. Societies rely on rules to function. [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau put it very nicely: the first person to put up a fence and say, “this is mine,” created society. This could be the definition of a capitalist society that is based on the notion of private property because there the creation of any relationship presupposes private ownership—the ownership of one’s own person as well as the ownership of things. But what is contained in this thought, and what, in my opinion, goes beyond the realm of any question of ownership, is that regu­lation, too, becomes a factor. And, whether you like it or not, the regulating function that is operative in relationships also has violent characteristics. One has to accept somehow that this structuring is not possible without violence, which also means that there is no living together without violence. The question is, however, to what extent do you believe in being able to resolve this through negotiation, in other words, by legally codifying and thereby transitioning into a kind of Western model of democracy, as opposed to accepting a condition of permanent civil war that only ends when one party has finally finished the other off? Or is it possible to exceed these scenarios?

Hirsch – It seems important to revisit an issue that you raised earlier: that often when emotion and sensibility are mentioned in the context of art or art production, what comes to mind initially is an idea of lofty emotions, or lovey-dovey feelings linked to beauty—an idea of exactly those affects that have already been valued as “positive.” It is almost as if there has been a conspiracy to undermine the power that emotion and sensibility exert by suggesting they are harmless, by sanitizing them somehow, also by denying their fundamental ambiguity. I also cannot help but note that the negotiation you mention is a form of trade—of ideas and values that must be assessed and possibly transformed in a process of being passed back and forth between two or more parties, as between artist and audience, by means of an artwork, for example.

Nicolai – Yes. What is meant when people speak about beauty? It certainly cannot be just about comfort. Beauty becomes a useful concept for me when considered as a formal category; that is, a kind of anti-psychology, not the expression of individual enjoyment, but instead as an articu­lation of specific formal constellations that exceed these very constellations. Otherwise, you are left with simply rapture. Beauty as a kind of turning point, as an exchange arena. Not only in the sense of [Rainer Maria] Rilke, as the beginning of terror,19 but also as the beginning of something new, another sensibility. I am convinced that the works of Donald Judd are differently received today than they were thirty years ago. And here we have the reception that you are talking about. One also in a way becomes an audience to one’s own works. And there are moments where through them one’s own “blind spot” can briefly appear like a flash.

At the beginning of this conversation I talked briefly in the context of Lacan about flexion. One could also consider one’s own artworks as such flexions and consider their interrelationship based on the way in which they inflect each other and what forms appear in them. The author Anne von der Heiden demonstrated this for me once in a text.20 I was surprised which of my works she positioned next to each other, which ones she put into relation with one another. A conceptual work, like the advertisement for a meteor shower (Welcome to the Tears of St. Lawrence, 2005), a poster work that samples the image of dripping blood from a castigation scene of Christ (untitled, Blutstropfen, 2000), and a realist sculpture (A Portrait of the Artist as a Weeping Narcissus, 2000) connected simply through the image of the drop. I can’t say that didn’t affect me.

  1. Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies (London: W. W. Norton, 1990), 21­–22.
  2. Erich Maas (1952–2001) was an artist, graphic designer, and publisher. He co-founded the Maas Verlag in Berlin in 1990. Maas published, for example, the first German translation of works by Kathy Acker.
  3. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Berlin district of Kreuzberg stood for everything alternative. Since during the Cold War era West Berlin was completely surrounded by East German territory and was basically a capitalist island inside the socialist GDR, the West German government put special incentives into place to keep West Berlin running, which in itself was an ideological imperative. One of these incentives was that all young men registered in Berlin did not have to attend the otherwise compulsory military service. Needless to say, the city thus attracted many young people, particularly those of a sometimes radical, left political conviction. Since there was not much in the way of jobs in Berlin, the city population composed itself largely of very young people and people in retirement age. The district of Kreuzberg, with its significant old housing stock, also became the nexus of the German squatting scene, home to a large radicalized anarchist contingent.
  4. Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge, Geschichte und Eigensinn (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1993).
  5. Friedrich Ludwig Gottlob Frege (1848–1925) was a German mathematician, logician, and philosopher. See “On Sense and Reference,” alternatively translated as “On Sense and Meaning” (1892).
  6. Jacques Lacan, Die Übertragung. Das Seminar, Buch VIII, ed. Peter Engelmann (Wien: Passagen Verlag, 2008), 263 ff.
  7. The term “flexion” originates with Pierre Klossowski and is picked up by Gilles Deleuze in The Logic of Sense (1990). Author Barbara Bolt describes it thus: For Deleuze, flexion is that “act of language which fabricates a body for the mind…language transcends itself as it reflects the body.”… The body that writes and is simultaneously written suggests a mutual reflection between bodies and language. As a double transgression between bodies and language, flexion is a “monstrosity” which effects de-formation at the level of matter rather than form. Barbara Bolt, Art Beyond Representation: The Performative Power of the Image (London: I. B. Tauris Publishers, 2004), 157.
  8. BILD is a right-wing tabloid that in the 1960s and ’70s engaged in such inflammatory anti-left journalism that it was partially blamed for the shooting of Benno Ohnesorg. Ohnesorg was a student who had participated in the 1967 demonstration against the visit of the Shah of Iran in Berlin. The demonstration was quashed with excessive force. Ohnesorg’s violent death was a catalyst for further unrest and made BILD one of the protesters’ prime targets.
  9. A conservative broadsheet newspaper published in Frankfurt with a layout akin to the New York Times.
  10. Joseph Schumpeter (1883–1950) was an economist and political scientist. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (New York: Harper & Row, 1975).
  11. See Georg Lukács, “Es geht um den Realismus,” in Die Expressionismusdebatte: Materialien zu einer marxistischen Realismuskonzeption, ed. Hans-Jürgen Schmitt (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1973).
  12. For an online archive of Escalier du Chant, see
  13. “Wie der Sinn ins Sinnliche kommt: Die Kunst des Olaf Nicolai,” Zündfunk, Bayerischer Rundfunk 2, March 13, 2011.
  14. Jean Genet, Un chant d’amour, 1950. View online in full at
  15. (Innere Stimme) [2011] is based on ‘Humoreske’ Opus 20 for piano by Robert Schumann. On one page of the piece Schumann added a third notation between the treble and bass staves, which he named “Innere Stimme” (Inner Voice). This melody can technically not be played by the pianist as his hands are busy with the treble and bass staves but the melody remains present for the musician—it influences his interpretation of the piece. The audience, unable to see the score, can only imagine the influence of the “Innere Stimme.” Using this extreme work of the romantic composer, Olaf Nicolai…addresses the conceptual level of the music with a continuous 30-hour-performance of the hidden notes, interpreted by…30 singers. With the performance, the mental dimensions of Schumann’s music is transposed and unveiled in the gallery space of VeneKlasen/Werner [Berlin]. The now audible inner voices echo the original concept of seeming absence and ghostlike appearance, for its enduring repetition. Olaf Nicolai, “Symphony-Movement II: (Innere Stimme),” Soundfair, last modified October 2010, See also Olaf Nicolai, Innere Stimme (Middelburg: De Vlesshal; Amsterdam: Roma Publications).
  16. Pierre Klossowski, Die Lebende Münze (Berlin: Kulturverlag Kadmos, 1998).
  17. Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990).
  18. Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (New York: Random House, 1986).
  19. Rainer Maria Rilke, Rainer Maria Rilke Werke, Band 1.2, Gedicht Zyklen, Duineser Elegien (Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 1982), 441.
  20. Anne von der Heiden, “In Abeyance, or: Views and Visual Rays,” Parkett, no. 78 (2006), 100.
About the Authors

Antonia Hirsch is an artist based in Berlin and Vancouver. She is Associate Editor at Fillip.

Olaf Nicolai is an artist who lives and works in Berlin. His work has been exhibited at documenta X, the Sydney Biennale 2002, the 51st Venice Biennale, and the Busan Biennale 2012, as well as at the Moderna Museet (Stockholm), the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the Kestnergesellschaft (Hanover), and Kunsthalle Münster, among others. He teaches at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste München.

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