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Superconversations Day 3: Victoria Ivanova responds to Jennifer Allora & Guillermo Calzadilla, "The Great Silence"


Metaphor’s Isolation Affect

What’s in a metaphor? For artists Allora & Calzadilla, the power of a metaphor lies in its ability to destabilize the fixed and the prescriptive, to relativize objectivity, to reveal the repressed and the unexpected. In fact, metaphor occupies a central role in the logic of contemporary art: both at the level of the art objects’ claims to content and in the way that they are positioned vis-a-vis reality. On the one hand, reality is posed as a place where violent overdetermination of meaning takes place, on the other hand, reality can never be known for what it is. In contemporary art, the epistemological handicap is often presented as a strength that allows the affective qualities of that which escapes fixation to shine through; that perfectly still internal hurricane on a “disconcertingly quiet night” when we know that “the universe ought to be a cacophony of voices.”

While in contemporary art the objects’ discursive clouds reorganize reality’s semantic configurations left, right and center, the aesthetic experience is assumed to reach beyond its modernist connotations with the sublime, transforming the subject through its affective qualities. Yet, for something that prides itself in its incommensurability and exceptionality, isn’t transformation a tall order? …A stroll through the Giardini and the Arsenale – or through most contemporary art shows – and a casual perusing through the shows’ mediation materials would quickly reveal that contemporary art is transforming the world and constructing all of the world’s futures. That is, only metaphorically.

The ambiguation of that most fundamental verb “to be” by splitting the signifier from the signified is the standard post-structuralist operation and the basis for contemporary art’s modus operandi. It allows aesthetics to be conflated with politics, narrative with reality, and antagonism through discourse with transformation, while leaving reality’s infrastructures unchanged. Aesthetic reorganization of the sensible may feel liberating at the level of subjective experience while also satisfying the Rancièrians amongst us. However, without a reattachment to the signified, doesn’t free play end up only offering yet another embellished perpetuation of begrudged reality?

Returning to Allora & Calzadilla, part of the problem seems to lie in what they, as most contemporary art practitioners, see as a gap between what we, humans, postulate (in other words, our science) and the deeply “subjective” and locked-in realities of our objects of study:

A human researcher named Irene Pepperberg spent thirty years studying Alex. She found that not only did Alex know the words for shapes and colors, he actually understood the concepts of shape and color.

For Allora & Calzadilla, the aggressive overreach of universalizing concepts denies Alex his subjective agency. The formulation is underwritten by Kantian understanding of noumena as the inaccessible reality of the phenomenal world. The position also resonates with the more recent attempts to curb the hubris of human-generated rational knowledge (as for example in the work of Graham Harman and Levi R. Bryant). Yet, as Peter Wolfendale points out in his critique of Harman’s position (and concisely elaborated upon by Ben Woodard), what this “democratic” stance ultimately leads to is an “ontological liberalism” that disempowers epistemology, inadvertently making affect-rich isolation qua difference our universe’s base condition.

While few would argue against difference, it seems that targeting universalism as the ultimate form of violence obfuscates the systemic conditions that structure the very avenues available for exercising differential agency. In fact, in the case of the African Grey Parrot, it is safe to assume that what has conditioned the species’ flirtation with near extinction in the most recent past are the terms of the liberal economic policy that former African colonies were subjected to after their independence. Lack of strong regulatory policy and a vibrant informal sector that provide opportunities for highly lucrative businesses for some and the sole means of survival for others are all about ambiguity and unfixity, yet they are still full of violence.

So, where do reality-based aesthetized metaphors sit in all of this? If the proliferation of narratives is the objective, the metaphoric condition proves to be productive. Yet, if there is indeed the desire for art to make the “excess” narratives bear upon the real in all of its violence, shouldn’t it be stepping outside of its safe metaphoric zone? Aren’t the indeterminacy of affect and a near religious obsession with difference holding art back from making real systemic transformations? And if systemic transformations are outside of art’s jurisdiction, shouldn’t contemporary art and its claims be recalibrated accordingly?

Victoria Ivanova is an independent curator and a member of the Real Flow collective. She holds a MA in curatorial studies from Bard College and a MSc from the London School of Economics.


Excellent propositional statement Victoria. Your points “making affect-rich isolation qua difference our universe’s base condition” and “Aren’t the indeterminacy of affect and a near religious obsession with difference holding art back from making real systemic transformations? And if systemic transformations are outside of art’s jurisdiction, shouldn’t contemporary art and its claims be recalibrated accordingly?” are perennially important ones, and particularly relevant in the context of this ostensibly “socially-engaged” Biennale. “Affect Rich” seems to have become the newest phenomenological appeal to “Historical Materialism”. I would argue that the de-calibration of contemporary art with aestheticized politics is important at this juncture. A “near religious obsession with difference” in this context serves to maintain a dialectical relation between aesthetics and the political that is held abstractly suspended in the representative precincts of neoliberal “progress”.


Victoria, it is very interesting to think about the limitations of the metaphor and its affective reach. Can we maybe argue that the problem is not in the metaphoric use but that the action ends in the metaphor? That the contemporary art move stays in the affective and does not move beyond towards the universal through the rational? And then maybe we ask more from a SUPERCOMMUNITY like this one here is the place where the metaphoric turns towards the universal through action and not only through discourse in the protected space of the digital and biennial? And we start communicating with the outside.


“the de-calibration of contemporary art with aestheticized politics is important at this juncture”
I think that is definitely part of my proposition but at the same time I wonder whether “aesthetization” or let’s just say the “aesthetic” will ineluctably remain key to an era in which organization and visualization of massive amounts of information will play a crucial role. It seems to me that the key move is to disentangle claims to art’s autonomy and the non-instrumental status of art from the functionality of the aesthetic in order for the latter to gain meaning at the level of systemic impact. But I would be curious to hear from how you understand “re-calibration” in this context.


Astute points, Victoria. I agree with your position and personally take a similarly pragmatic stand when critiquing contemporary art but I would add that in ‘modernist’ or emergent art markets with state suppression and where populist mob mentality can push a state to act, the use of metaphor in art is actually politically more real or effective than how it performs in an internationalised art world determined by a largely ‘free global market’. In smaller, localised scenes, where the scale of discourse is not as expansive as the ‘global’, and the political project of art is clearly set out because of acts of coercion or censorship, the metaphor in art is at times the only form of sustainable political action/resistance/protest available.
I guess fundamentally my contribution to this line of inquiry would be to question scale and whether an effective political project can be assigned a hydra like the international art world - especially since political discourse often manifests as a type of trendy commodity in a global marketplace of ideas?


Totally. My problem isn’t with “metaphor” per se but with the fact that it is such an embedded (and accepted for that) condition of the contemporary art sphere. Of course there are plenty of instances when the metaphor condition is broken out of, and it is perhaps especially the case in practices that don’t operate on the basis of art’s exceptionality, but at this stage the latter are more like single manifestations rather than systemically validated conditions. Can you explain a bit more what you mean by this question?: “And then maybe we ask more from a SUPERCOMMUNITY like this one here is the place where the metaphoric turns towards the universal through action and not only through discourse in the protected space of the digital and biennial?”


In this case I was referring to the possibility of actually taking this discourse to practical actions that are not only in the realm of the theory. How can this discourse tangibly inform other practices that have their hand in constructing worlds beyond the metaphor? And is the SUPERCOMMUNITY only a metaphor of a community in the digital or can it have some kind of traction towards supposedly universal values? would the universal value of this community be the sacralization of difference?
It is also interesting to think about this in the context of what @kathditzig is mentioning about the hydra like effect that a metaphor can have when it is used as a bridge.


The problem of discourse (where one makes explicit one’s commitments) has to be counterbalanced with a certain practical component that ultimately lies next to it. As a semiotics’ RA, what ultimately bothers me is that the discourse outside of the discipline usually paints an outdated image of what semiotics /is/. Semiology (the theoretical basis of semiotics) is completely fine and needed, but the practical element remains with the semioticians that have been trying to get past the Sausurian strand of semiotics. Greimas is well known, but post-greimasian semiotics (such as Fontanille, Zilberberg, Landowski, etc) has been ultimately neglected in any discussion of the discipline. Tensive semiotics, for example, examines and can be a helpful tool in the transition between discourse (iterated in spoken/written theory) and practice (action) Tensive semiotics does not read practices as “texts” or reduces them to “discourse”, but it is ultimately an affective analysis of a given practice. Semiotics is extended and further revised.

In my opinion, this is not an issue of taking discourse towards action, art has to start from /action/. Both the discursive and practical realms are tactical planes where one is obligated to map each move (responsibility), but we have gotten lost in discourse and left the practical issue at stake here behind. This is why it’s so hard, for a theoretically rooted discipline, to actually “do” something and, in this sense, is really interesting to see grassroots movements / art collectives in their self-organizing efforts. What is needed there is actually theory and development of discourse. So for me, the task is ultimately synoptic, or integrative if you’d like.

For me, this integration is further explored in the intersection between maker/hacker cultures and artists. I know, for example, the critical making movement and the critical engineering movement in Berlin are doing interesting stuff synthesizing discourse (understood as theory) and practice (understood as manipulation of technological materials)

Hope this didn’t come out of nowhere. Thanks for the chance to discuss these things.


That is a great point, I agree that intersection right there is where interesting things are happening and it is a type of practice that should be explored further.

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“I wonder whether “aesthetization” or let’s just say the “aesthetic” will ineluctably remain key to an era in which organization and visualization of massive amounts of information will play a crucial role. It seems to me that the key move is to disentangle claims to art’s autonomy and the non-instrumental status of art from the functionality of the aesthetic in order for the latter to gain meaning at the level of systemic impact. But I would be curious to hear from how you understand “re-calibration” in this context.”

Victoria, thanks for the thoughtful response. Your questions and propositions bring to the fore so much of the essential concerns that any artistic program or project need be concerned with today. In particular I think the question of whether “aesthetization” or simply the aesthetic—as you state—will continue to have such a prominent role is precisely THE question. As other respondents to this thread have also identified, it underscores the age-old distinction between praxis, poisies as they relate to practice and production, respectively. I’m reminded here of Agamben’s observation that any attempt to transcend the aesthetic in order to give new status to artistic “pro-duction” always leads us to forget the original pro-ductive status of the work of art as the foundation of the space of truth. However, I’m personally happy to try again so that aesthetics stops being the dominant concern and instead as Roxana alludes to above we can produce better metaphors that are arrived at through action. In response to the role of art in the wake of visualizing large amounts of data: I would hope that it’s not only the role of visualization that “we” can find “our” place, but in altering the direction and volition of these incredibly impactful technological realities.


Aesthetics may be, in the words of Kierkegaard “the least faithful of all the sciences”. What he may have been getting at is that aesthetics is indeed a science that can be studied, empiricized, instrumentalized to good effect but only with the awareness that any theorem derived from such a practice could only be derived from a weak ethics. Natalia’s reference to the Agamben notion of the work of art as the foundation of the space of truth is not antithetical to such an idea: an idea that space of truth is often best founded in the least- determined environment. If one considers the overdetermination of the present, accelerating, environment " in which the organization and visualization of massive amounts of information will play a crucial role" as a reality, then an intentional underdetermination of aesthetics might serve as a foil to simply contributing to that overdetermined environment. The weak ethics inherent in an underdetermined aesthetics is not no ethics but perhaps more of a pragmatic ethics.


Tom, I really like the way your comment looks :wink:

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Just a few notes before dashing off to work. I’ll be responding to Victoria’s post and don’t have time to look through the rest of the conversation: I apologize and will make amends, to try and knit this into the overall thread so that this conversation doesn’t become fragmented, though of course one of you could too!

@Victoria Please elaborate. Does this ontological liberalism necessarily produce political liberalism? And I assume you mean a certain kind of classical market liberalism which takes its form now as neoliberalism, as opposed to contract (and then institutional) liberalism, right?

The attack against universalism for the last few decades, I think, has shown itself to run out of steam. I offer this historical account of the role of Charles Malik and PC Chang in shaping the declaration of human rights. The colonized countries argued explicitly for universalism, against the European powers, which sought to integrate language that protected “the sacred trust” of colonialism, arguing for differences in the speed of civilizational development. Obviously, no-one is proposing that here. But here is a historical example, not even old, of the emancipatory potential of universalism. We must always be cautious about what forms of difference we should wish to preserve; for example, different preferences for food, as opposed to differentiated access to healthcare. One of the key ways in which the arguments for difference have been legally codified in a horrible mangling, is the overuse of the free speech amendment by the US Supreme Court to preserve inequality.

The assault against universalism is often positioned as an attack of the margins against the center (terms which would not be accepted by those critics, pace Allora and Calzadilla) but I think that’s an incorrect framing. It seems more to me like an internal debate to the cosmopolis, and the attach on universalism has frankly taken apart robust and progressive institutions that can act beyond their immediate interests, and replaced them with self-interested, short-sighted agencies: in other words, the impacts of this anti-universalist argumentation for, as you said, “unfixity,” the “democratic stance,” “a vibrant informal sector, etc, etc” end up being pro-market. This is why Daniel Zamora can criticize Foucault for being not just complicit in the trivial sense but an active proponent of neoliberalism. Regardless of whether his interpretation of Foucault is correct, I would say that Foucault’s early work is in fact amenable to being used in a monetarist economic way: one of the only academics who hated institutions and deconstructed as passionately and as impactfully as Foucault was Milton Freidman. (Did you know he proposed to abolish the corporation as a model? It’s not only the left that’s anti-corporate; which, n.b., does not mean anti-market, and often means the exact opposite of anti-market.)Please ask me to expand if this makes no sense—in the interests of time, merely, I will get to the next point.

You point out that any transformation effected is only metaphorical. I think of Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which I was taught as being a polemic against metaphor. Effectively, an African-American temp worker who thinks of their conditions as being slave-like travels back in time to the antebellum south, to their ancestors, and discover that these metaphors are totally inadequate. She then ends up keeping her abusive captor, a young white boy called Rufus, alive not out of compassion but because she discovers he’s one of her ancestors—probably through the rape of one of his servants. This is an extremely complex narrative, but one of its fundamental points is to force readers to move from thinking about metaphor (as Toni Morrison would have it, for example). She indicates that metaphor does not at all have the transformative capacity A&C might associate with it—it’s claim on reality is specious. But she keeps writing sci-fi—she obviously develops her own idea of why imagining not evidently true realities matters. I would say she moves from metaphor to modeling. Octavia Butler later goes on to write incredible novels about culturalisms and racisms and sexisms using alien cultures in order to simulate, to model, the problems of Earth without tying them specifically to the Earth. The parallels are clear—they become cognitive tools—but there is no implicit causal link that ties them to the present.

One of the canonical names for this debate, by the way, is metaphor vs metonymy. Perhaps someone else can explicate better

The last point I want to raise quite seriously, and it’s related to the politics of what you’re calling the metaphorical condition, is the question of ventriloquy. A&C speak in the fictional mode of the parrot—though at times they quote Alex, and this helps to lend a plausibility to our suspension of disbelief (which is never seriously enacted). I called out E-flux for doing the same thing in describing the Supercommunity in the first person. I want to say that ventriloquism is one of the critical political-theoretic problems of the Left. When can one person (or group) speak for another person (or group)? See, for example, the Maoist polemic against bourgeois formalism,. Relatedly, when can one person speak for a group (that they may belong to)? This is obviously a problem of political representation; it is often speciously associated with literary representation. This is not just incorrect, it’s used against us: soft power is offered in lieu of hard power. “The universe ought to be a cacophony of voices.” If we know anything about the USA, for example, it’s that African-Americans can be permitted to speak very loudly [visibility in media, sports, music] even while Baltimore happens.


Actually important, since a scopic regime demands looking and liking. :grimacing:


Why, of course! Sign it with platinum :slight_smile:


Metaphor, Sylvester = Alex, or the affect-rich isolation:
Sylvester Stallone will be in Nice on the weekend of May 16 for the opening of his exhibition of paintings at the MAMAC. He shows his works for only the third time.
Attention event! Sylvester Stallone is in Nice weekend of May 16 Rocky Balboa poses gloves. Superstar lets his heavy weapons to the locker room, the time for a peaceful visit to the Coast. Exit the tank on which he was perched year for presentation on the Croisette last part of the trilogy Expandables . After the noble art and the 7th art, art itself: until May 30, Stallone exhibited his works at the Museum of Modern Art and Contemporary Nice. Yes, it is the contemporary gallery of Mamac which opened in Rocky, he must remember that practice painting for forty years!


Contemporary art partially embraced the aesthetisized metaphor as a coward strategy to deal with politics without engaging in cuts to government funding. Think of the time Republican Senator Jesse Helms found out that the NEA had given the a museum a large sum for Robert Mappletrhope’s explicit works, leading him to gather congressmen to try and effect a cutting for art funds. Serrano and Mapplethrope were dissed under ““morally reprehensible trash.”” Needless to say, proposals for grant cutting were issued. (http://www.publiceye.org/theocrat/Mapplethorpe_Chrono.html)

Now, contrast that to Felix Gonzales Torres’ “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers) and you see a recapitalization of the teleology of art to favor metaphorical construction. I might even go as far as suggesting that the predominance of this form of art making perhaps stems out from a need to obscure explicit or controversial subject matter to politicians, while still allowing the work to be made. We can only hope that contemporary art might experience a shift in its Realist center.


@kathditzig: You bring up very important nuances to the line of thinking that I presented. I agree that at the more regional/localized level of counter-hegemonic action, which is most often targeted against oppressive/authoritarian regimes, “metaphor” becomes a useful tool for building a more informed and thus less prosecuting society. In many ways, it is a much more effective tool than the strictly politico-juridical ones, although at some stage the latter become absolutely paramount in order to actually embed the footwork done through art within the fabric of social mechanisms. As you know yourself, art projects with the most enduring (and dare I say, meaningful) impact are the ones that have aligned themselves with grassroots actors or larger organizations that have very specific/narrow missions, or which have a more “boring” legal/political aspect to them. But I wonder if you’d agree with me that these kind of projects aren’t strictly “contemporary art” because they most often lack access corridors to the international CA network and in case they do gain traction within it, they start functioning as metaphoric abstractions and exoticized social sculptures. I know that you have done quite a bit of work on making the international useful to the more regional/local projects and I’d be curious to hear more on that… Perhaps, you could mention a couple of examples where you feel such projects have profited from the international scene?

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@inconstantloop, thank you so much for elaborating on the fallacy of reducing semiotics to discourse! Do you think this has in part to do with the fact that some strands of post-structural theory have become internalized by the CA institutional establishment while others are at best footnotes within its narrative? I really like this point: “this is not an issue of taking discourse towards action, art has to start from /action/… So for me, the task is ultimately synoptic, or integrative if you’d like.” Do you think that practices that start from technological/material conditions are more likely to produce work that is integrative rather than metaphorical? The reason that I am asking is because it seems that within the kinds of projects that you mention, there has already been a recalibration of what art can do/how it should position itself.


@dxb: Firstly, thank you so much for your response! I wish I could just say, my thoughts EXACTLY and just ventriloquize you! (Kidding…bad joke). Because I agree with everything you say so wholeheartedly it’s difficult for me to find an equally rich response. But ok, to start with “ontological liberalism” (and this is a response from someone who bastardizes theory, so please excuse the reductionism): yes, to state it bluntly, ontological liberalism “aids and abets” the current liberal formation because it so conveniently preserves the right to individuality while making it indeterminate. I suppose, to go back to more classical forms of liberal theory, ontological liberalism makes negative freedoms inalienable while positing positive rights as an overreach. This in turn resonates with the manner in which contemporary art’s metaphorical condition operates as a poetic imaginary for futures that we could construct but shouldn’t be so foolish as to think we should actually construct them because that would basically amount to fascism. There are two things that I did not mention in my initial response but which may be instructive. First of all, it would probably be more accurate to state that the metaphorical condition is actually time-less in so far as it operates on the basis of its exceptional status. This is convenient because art can then revel in its transcendental qualities, which brings me to my second point, that the transcendental status is jack-pot for claims to art’s autonomy, which brings us full circle back to the question “what’s in a metaphor?” I hope you see why I find CA that prides itself in its autonomy and still wants to maintain a critical edge on reality as a narrative-force so frustrating (and dare I be a fascist and just say–pointless). You mention the transition from metaphor to mapping cognitive tools through science-fiction and I just want to say: YES. While I am no sci-fi connoisseur, I think that what art can do is provide these cognitive tools that are future-oriented rather than time-less (or endlessly deconstructing the past and projecting it onto the present). This is where this tete-a-tete intersects with what @inconstantloop was getting at in this forum. Thoughts?