Collection Collective: Rethinking Function, Ownership and Possession
I have recently returned to Jean Baudrillard* because of a research project that I have been involved with and organised, together with two curators and friends from the tranzit.org network: Judit Angel (tranzit.sk) and Raluca Voinea (tranzit.ro). The project is titled Collection Collective, and is precisely what it says it is: a contemporary art collection, collectively owned and managed by its members. It functions according to a very simple principle: each member of the collective offers work according to skills and expertise.
Though the project’s idea emerged many years ago, it was materialised only in 2017, during an exhibition, workshop and public seminar that took place in Bratislava, at tranzit.sk. There are several reasons why Collection Collective exists. To begin with, I would mention the participant members’ dissatisfaction with policies of cultural institutions (national or international), as well as with the current shape of the art market. For me, personally, this is also a project of institutional critique: Collection Collective proposes to cut through the economic and ideological dependency on institutional collecting policies and their politics of representation. For many of the members involved, it is also a response to the way in which art from certain parts of the globe – certainly Eastern and Central Europe, but even beyond - has entered into private or corporate collections in the West; and to how the power of these collections is reconfirmed by policies of public flagship institutions.
As many will remember, Baudrillard’ chapter in The System of Objects dedicated to collecting still represents an important reference for collection studies, though its reception has not always been sympathetic[i]. Collection studies received extensive development at the end of the 1980s and throughout the early 1990s. In preparation for the project’s launch last year I attempted to review the research literature, and the experience of reading has been both illuminating and frustrating. Illuminating because one finds extraordinary sociological and anthropological work that explains what and how people collect, as well as the significance of collecting for the field of material culture. As Susan Pearce wrote in 1994 - and I believe that we are still in the same paradigm, at least in the Western World - collection studies embrace three broad areas: (1) collection policies, in relation to museums, including research decisions upon what to collect (and what not), and the relation between artefacts and research; (2) the history of collections, from the ancient world to the present day, focusing on processes of acquisition, document editing, and the relation between private collections and museums; (3) the nature of collections and reasons why people collect – both explicit reasons as well as more opaque, i.e. social or psychological motivations[ii].
These academic accounts allow us to understand the complex world of collecting; but I also found them frustrating because I believe that certain assumptions are not tackled, and they do little in challenging the institutional status quo. One of the questions that arose is whether the private subject is essential to an understanding of collecting: is the narcissistic identification between collector and the object collected an essential, necessary condition of the possibility of collecting? Or, is it perhaps a circumstantial one, which perhaps can be countered with a different type of economy, such as the one attempted by our project? And what sort of consequences can we derive from there? Another problem arose from the temporal aspects of collecting. The literature is rich in reflections concerning the preservation of material culture, but it left me wanting for more in relation to the radical distinction which, in my opinion, is to be made between collecting ‘historical’ artefacts and collecting artefacts belonging to our contemporaneity. At stake here is the question of the political agency of a ‘contemporary collection’: is it possible to think of collections as active agents shaping our contemporaneity and, if yes, how? My intention in this text, then, is to approach these issues together with Jean Baudrillard, particularly the early Baudrillard of the System of Objects (1968/1996) and For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1972/1981).
Baudrillard is certainly one of those authors who explain collecting as narcissistic identification between the collector and the objects collected. I do not wish to engage with the psychological aspects of collecting – my aim is, in fact, to articulate a critical breakthrough in this type of accounts. I will focus, instead, on what Baudrillard has to say about collections as semiotic systems; and I do so because, in my opinion, the reconsideration of collectibles as semiotic entities allows us to overcome a simplistic reading of collections as simple carriers of exchange value, or as mere safe deposits of capital.
I want to observe, from the beginning, that the System of Objects does not offer particular attention to collecting art, or to collecting the contemporary; indeed, much more can be extracted from For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, which I will approach later. The System of Objects, particularly Section B, chapter II, titled ‘A Marginal System: Collecting,’ proposes, however, a general theory of collecting, wherefrom a theory of collecting art can derive. But I want to introduce it with the proviso of a suspicion, which can be grasped through the following analogy. In the mid-1970s Baudrillard famously suggested that Foucault spoke so well about a power that is socially pulverised, without questioning its reality, precisely because power, and especially Foucault’s version of power, had been already defunct[iii]. And I am wondering if this is not the case with Baudrillard too, and his account of collecting: may it be the case that Baudrillard spoke so well about collecting, perhaps because that concept of collecting and that type of collector were already extinct?
When asking this question I have in mind one of Walter Benjamin’s statements, proposed in his ‘Unpacking my Library,’ the essay included in Illuminations. Benjamin developed here, at large, an account of his passion for books, of the non-functional and non-utilitarian value of collected artefacts, and the dialectics between a collection’s order (the closing of a collection within a ‘magical circle’ of meaning) and disorder (the necessarily open character of collections, reconfirmed with every new raid in book shops). These themes are to be found in Baudrillard’s chapter as well. But Benjamin also proposed that the phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner – pointing towards the advent of public collections. Benjamin considered public collections less objectionable socially and more useful academically; however, he maintained that ‘objects get their due’ only in private collections. And he added:
I do know that time is running out for the type [of collector] that I am discussing here and have been representing before you ex officio. But, as Hegel put it, only when it is dark does the owl of Minerva begin its flight. Only in extinction is the collector comprehended.[iv]
In other words, what I am suggesting here is that Baudrillard may have developed, in a systematic manner, suggestions that Benjamin had already offered three decades earlier; the possibility of this systematicity, however, may be generated by the very disappearance of its object, or perhaps its transformation into a very particular paradigm. Is this the case?
Singularity and Seriality
To remind ourselves what Baudrillard has to say about collections: together with antiques, collectibles fall outside the system of functional objects belonging to the world of practicality. I am mentioning antiques here because Baudrillard thought there are profound affinities between the two: narcissistic regression, the obsession with origins (maternal filiation), and with date, signature and authenticity (paternal filiation), the suppression of time, and the imaginary mastery of the temporality of birth and death[v]. And I also mention antiques because Baudrillard seems to place certain paintings, especially those belonging to the first stage of the sign-order, those faithfully representing a more or less transcendental reality, within the realm of antiques. The significant difference between works of art and antiques, then, is that the former still require a rational reading, whereas the latter embody a mythical quality corresponding to their factor of authenticity.
When differentiating antiques and collectibles, it is important to note that although the ‘research question’ of the System of Objects is included in the first sentence of the Introduction - ‘Could we classify the luxuriant growth of objects as we do a flora or fauna, complete with tropical and glacial species, sudden mutations, and varieties threatened by extinction?’[vi] - only when Baudrillard reaches the marginal, non-functional, system of collecting does he introduce an analytical definition of objects (following Littré’s definition): an object is anything which is the subject of a passion and possession; figuratively, says Baudrillard, but ‘par excellence’ (otherwise said, as a best example, or a best paradigm, from a series of examples of objects one could make a passion for) ‘the loved object’[vii].
Passion, therefore, is an attribute of emotional investment. But investment is hardly possible if the object signifies poorly. For example, a red and black chair generically means ‘thing one can rest on, which happens to be red and black;’ it is even conceivable that a plain red and black chair is taken as a more complex sign, whose signified may refer to the colours defining Middlesex University’s brand identity; but it is hardly imaginable how one could develop a passion for a plain red and black chair, unless something like Middlesex University is part of a person’s biography, and he/she decides, at any point in time, to collect all types of chairs that Middlesex University has used, in its entire history, for the purpose of allowing students to rest during lectures. This is how we can understand Baudrillard when he claims that ‘[i]f I use a refrigerator to refrigerate, it is a practical mediation; it is not a an object, but a refrigerator. And in that sense I do not possess it.’[viii] Objects, then, are necessarily tied up to subjects: ‘no longer simply material bodies offering a certain resistance, they become mental precincts over which I hold sway, they become things of which I am the meaning, they become my property and my passion.’[ix] Thus, to come back to antiques: though they can be collected, they still retain a certain practical functionality, in that we can still use a Louis XIV chair for sitting, just as much as we can use a plain red and black chair for sitting, which accidentally may have occupied Middlesex University’s buildings, in the 1960s. Essentially, this is unlike individual samples, or paradigms, of a collection, which are abstracted from use and devoid of practicality.
I was once invited to a dinner hosted by a German collector and accidentally sat on a beautiful wooden chair, one of the 1001 chairs that Ai Wei Wei installed for his documenta 12 work, ‘Fairytale’[x], which the collector had recently purchased. Of course, I became aware that I was sitting on a Ai Wei Wei chair only after the collector had subtly told me so; and although I was allowed to continue to use it – at the end of the day, Ai Wei Wei’s chairs had been used within that documenta precisely for that purpose, to provide ‘islands of calm’ and facilitate discussions among visitors - I preferred to change my seat, because of the discomfort I immediately experienced. I had unwillingly proved my ignorance by not recognizing the chair for what it was, and I felt as if I had broken into the collector’s private world. This is to say that artists often break the clear-cut, analytical distinctions, such as those that Baudrillard is establishing here. Nevertheless, the point that Baudrillard makes remains valid: it is at the level of signification that the project of classifying objects is possible. Therefore, if we understand what kind of objects collectibles are – even if, as my personal story suggests, a purely, non-functional object remains a mere theoretical possibility - there are two essential traits in the logic of collecting, which I find intriguing and I want to discuss further.
The first one points to the necessity of understanding collections as semiotic systems, whose logic rely on the relation between paradigmatic singularity and syntagmatic seriality. The singularity of each member of a collection stems from the fact that it is possessed by the collector; it is a process of narcissistic identification and projection, where the collectible’s paradigmatic character determines the possibility of the subject’s self-recognition as singular being. Syntagmatic serialisation allows that narcissistic identification can be projected to an unlimited number of objects, where the subject always posits him/herself as the last object:[xi]
The serial nature of the most mundane of everyday objects, as of the most transcendent of rarities, is what nourishes the relationship of ownership and the possibility of passionate play: without seriality no such play would be conceivable, hence no possession – and hence, too, properly speaking, no object. A truly unique, absolute object, an object such that it has no antecedents and it is no way dispersed in some series or other – such an object is unthinkable.[xii]
Therefore, as Baudrillard explains towards the end of the chapter, collecting amounts to a project of transforming an open-ended objective discontinuity among objects into a close subjective one. This is why collectibles have a poor relation with the world, although the possibility of there being another object, which is not yet included in the collection, leaves a door open to it.
The other essential aspect here is temporality. Baudrillard follows Maurice Rheims who implies that collecting presupposes a loss of any sense of the present time. Baudrillard considers the erasure of the present as a wall against anxiety towards death; not in the sense that the collector attempts to attain immortality, but rather in the sense that the collecting subject attempts to control his/her existence through cycles of opening up and closing off the collection series. As Baudrillard explains,
the organisation of the collection itself replaces time. And no doubt this is the collection’s fundamental function: the resolving of real time into a systematic dimension […] Indeed, it abolishes time. More precisely, by reducing time to a fixed set of terms navigable in either direction, the collection represents the continual recommencement of a controlled cycle whereby man (sic), at any moment and with complete confidence, starting with any term and sure of returning to it, is able to set his game of life and death into motion.[xiii]
This is, indeed, a stunning quote. I think that Baudrillard is right here, but in a way that offers food for thought in relation to the possibility of collecting the contemporary or, better said, in relation to the temporality of collecting the contemporary. If we take this thought to its logical consequences in what regards contemporary art, it appears that even if each singular collectible in a collection is ‘contemporary’ or addressing ‘the contemporary,’ the serial organisation of a collection of contemporary art suspends any sense of the present time (and, indeed, from any form of temporality): a collection of contemporary art appears as non-contemporary. The problem I identify here is that of agency that takes place in the ‘now’ of the ‘current time’; if much of contemporary art claims agency within the world of practicality, it follows that its potential inclusion in a collection erases the truth conditions of this claim. In a collector’s private apartment, an Ai Wei Wei chair can always be mistaken with an ordinary chair.
Signature and Value
Baudrillard had a difficult relation with the artworld: Sylvere Lotringer explains this well in his introduction to the Conspiracy of Art (2005). This is a collection of Baudrillard’s writings on art that begins with the famous essay bearing the same title, which was published in 1996, and which famously claimed that:
As long as art was making use of its own disappearance and the disappearance of its object, it still was a major enterprise. But art trying to recycle itself indefinitely by storming reality? The majority of contemporary art has attempted to do precisely that by confiscating banality, waste and mediocrity as values and ideologies. These countless installations and performances are merely compromising with the state of things, and with all the past forms of art history.[xiv]
Apart from this dismissal, the earlier For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1981) had already offered a well-articulated account of art’s incorporation in the capitalist economy. I believe that the same text helps us to understand the systemic conditions of collecting. For Baudrillard, art underwent a radical semiotic transformation in modernity, when it stopped functioning as representation and becomes simulation. The marker of this transformation is the primacy of artistic signature: it is through signature that authenticity is recognised and that an artwork is integrated in a series - in an artist’s series of works, in the syntagmatic organisation of a cultural system and, let us add, in a collection’s series too. Authenticity and originality are inscribed in the signature’s temporality, because the function of a signature is to recall a moment of authentic invention. It is this very moment of invention through signature, as original and authentic event, which Baudrillard questioned. He maintained that, in modernity, the signature as visible trace of authentic invention replaces artwork as foundation for artistic myths. Thus, production and consumption, supply and demand of work, and I want to add, collecting, are products of the conjunction between the subjective artistic series authenticated through signature, and the objective series comprising the rules of the artworld’s games and social consensus, as codes of the cultural system within which authentication and signature occur. The likes of Rauchenberg and Warhol, which Baudrillard mentions many times, have understood this semiotic transformation well, and their work can be interpreted as functioning within the confines of the formal literality of the signature’s seriality. For Baudrillard, then, the only way in which art can be contemporary is as a witness ‘testifying to the systematic of this full world by means of the inverse and homologous systematic of its empty gesture, a pure gesture marking an absence’[xv] – the gesture of the signature. As such, art can no longer be negative or critical or subversive, ‘as the global system of commodities conjugates it like any other object’[xvi] – any object, indeed, that one appropriates for its sign-value. In other words, even if it is not produced as commodity, art is ‘commodified’ at the level of serialised distribution and consumption.
Interestingly, Baudrillard looks at the art auction, ‘a shrine of the political economy of the sign’[xvii], to demonstrate this position. As he argues, expenditure (capital) does not suffice to explain what is happening at art auctions: one needs to learn to see expenditure as wealth manifested, as well as the destruction of wealth though the act of purchase. This manifestation and destruction of wealth, in what Appadurai would call ‘tournaments of value’[xviii] presupposing competition, challenge, sacrifice, and a community of aristocratic peers, is what transforms consumption into passion, and which may be linked, I want to suggest, to the passion for collecting:
another type of labor intervenes, which transforms economic value and surplus value into sign value: it is a sumptuary operation, devouring (consummation) and surpassing economic value according to a radically different type of exchange. Yet in a certain way it also produces a surplus value: domination, which is not to be confused with economic privilege and profit.’[xix]
The claim here is that transactions on the art market cannot be reduced to mere trade of (economic) exchange value. Artworks can be, of course, traded and stored as assets; but what interests Baudrillard is the exchange that takes place within the economy of artworks as carriers of sign-value. I want to suggest that this semiotic exchange, essentially founded on the metaphysics of the signature, and whose consequence is the production of surplus value as domination – is a problem for the politics of art. My claim is that this is precisely the space where Collection Collective operates.
Reconsidering Collection Collective
What I want to do in the following paragraphs is to offer a few toughts concerning Collection Collective, in the light of what has been explained until now. The first one follows immediately from the previous section. I believe that through artistic, curatorial and, more broadly, ‘cultural’ signature, cultural workers do take part and support a system that functions through these sumptuary operations of a privileged, dominant caste. But it appears to me that, often, this undisputable fact is presented as ineluctable necessity, and is based on the assumption that the subjective series articulated through artistic signature is a passive agent upon which the rules of the game, or the code, operate. But is this necessarily so? Can the seriality of cultural signature be re-articulated and systematised in such a way that it actually invents and institutes new rules, a new game, and alternative modes of legitimation? I believe that something of the sort is happening in Collection Collective. Although the Collection operates primarily in the realm of representation, it is not a mere symbolic act: the work offered is withdrawn from the economic circuits of the artworld, where it may be dealt as exchange value. In other words, the economic value of the collectibles within Collection Collective is secondary in relation to the way they articulate, as a collection owned and managed collectively, their own economy of the sign. This type of economy is not based on tournaments of value, but on a collective semiotic production that replaces domination with solidarity, cooperation and mutual legitimation. Essentially, and as a project with a testing hypothesis, Collection Collective asks if legitimacy as a process of self-legitimation functions: what are its limits and what are its effects?
The second suggestion I want to offer refers to an earlier claim, that Baudrillard’s account deals with a Minerva’s owl-type of collector. I want to qualify this observation: the private collector has certainly not disappeared, but there are transformations regarding collecting subjects which are worth reflecting upon. One of them relates to the question of how public institutions collect, or how collecting depends on certain institutional subjects, such as board members, trustees, directors, and curators. A whole field of enquiry, called institutional critique, looks at this. Baudrillard did argue that, contrary to what is commonly believed, museums and museum collections act as guarantees for aristocratic exchange: their reserves, like banks, are necessary for sign exchange, as they secure the universality of artworks and the aesthetic enjoyment of others who do not partake in the exchange game[xx]. But what are we to say about such collecting subjects as corporations and hedge funds? Interestingly, it is through looking at this types of subjects that we can understand how the concept of collecting is currently changing. Take, for example, Generali Foundation’s collection of contemporary art. Generali is an Austrian insurance company and I find insurance companies very interesting because they are entities that like to participate in the game of life and death by placing bets on human temporality. Generali Foundation, as a fact, has one of the most comprehensive collections of contemporary art in Europe, and one of the best in the world. I find really interesting the following paragraph from their mission statement:
The Generali Foundation represents an effort in cultural and social responsibility that has remained largely unparalleled in Austria and even internationally: a corporation has lent sustained support for more than two decades to the creation of an accentuated and thematically focused collection of art and moreover backed and frequently initiated a critical discourse that has addressed not only artistic and art-theoretical concerns but also social and political agendas.[xxi]
What I find fascinating here is how the concept of ‘corporate social responsibility’ is what Baudrillard would call an ‘alibi’ for a sumptuary operation relying on a very complex type of semiotic exchange. Yet, I believe we should look closer at what this operation, in fact, presupposes. To begin with, we are dealing with an exchange between a very abstract (though legal) type of subject, and a series of practices and discourses, with their own social and political agendas, which operate in the concrete. On the one hand, then, the social, cultural and political meaningfulness of each paradigm included in the collection’s series; and, on the other hand, a seriality which an abstract subject can no longer conjugate meaningfully for, as Baudrillard maintains, the meaning of the collection is ultimately given by the collector’s subjectivity, and subjectivity is, in this case, empty. In other words, if Benjamin’s and Baudrillard’s collectors still attached a subjective meaning to the series of singular paradigms collected, a meaning that was ultimately assured through the collectors’ subjective self-identification, the threat posed by the abstract serialisation of collecting processes is that meaning is obliterated. I believe that these sort of indeterminacies demonstrate why something like Collection Collective needs to happen: in relation to anonymous and abstract subjects, Collection Collective does not position itself as a supra-subject, but as a collection of subjects that are attempting to collaborate, and as a self-curated collective that recognises both affinities and differences. This is why friendship and mutual recognition remain core values according to which the Collection is being developed.
The third observation, which I want to make, and which follows from what has just been said, refers to the temporality of contemporary art itself, and the relationship between seriality, temporality, and agency. Baudrillard did observe that the play between singularity and seriality determines a collection’s removal from present temporality. And I have claimed that the ensuing consequence is the invalidation of art’s claims to agency. Perhaps this is why some of us may look suspiciously at collections of contemporary art: they seem to be incapable to deliver what their included collectibles had promised. Yet, I want to take Peter Osborne’s argument seriously, which claims that what makes contemporary art ‘contemporary’ is already a process of serialisation; the ‘contemporary’ in contemporary art points to the coming together of art’s different temporalities, a global disjunctive unity of art’s different but equally present ‘times,’ ‘the convergence and mutual conditioning of historical transformations in the ontology of the artwork […] and the social relations of art space […] that has its roots in more general economic and communicational processes.’[xxii]
In other words, the logic of the field of global contemporary art - which expands incessantly through the addition of new subjects, topics, concerns, and geopolitical spaces, and which nurtures relations of colonisation, domination, as well as resistance, and counter-hegemonisation - functions by following the play between singularity and serialisation. Nevertheless, what is missing is the ultimate collecting subject giving a definite identity to this series. The task and the challenge, then, are to reclaim signification while imagining who, or what, can fill up the empty space. Two possibilities present themselves with spectacular clarity: on the one hand, the meaningless hoarding of artworks in vaults, and the semiotic poverty of abstract serialisation; on the other hand, the possibility of rearticulating meaning, through a transformative process of collective semiotic production. Collection Collective has certainly embarked on the latter route.
* This is an abridged and extended version of a conference paper with the same title, presented at ‘Applied Baudrillard’ - 2nd International Multidisciplinary Conference on Baudrillard Studies, Oxford Brookes, Oxford, UK, 5-7 September 2018
[i] Susan M. Pearce, On Collecting: An Investigation into Collecting in the European Tradition (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 8.
[ii] Susan M. Pearce, 'Collecting Reconsidered,' in Susan M. Pearce (ed.) Interpreting Objects and Collections (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 193–94.
[iii] Jean Baudrillard, Forget Foucault, trans. Phil Beitchman, Lee Hildreth, and Mark Polizzotti (New York: Semiotext(e), 2007), p. 31.
[iv] Walter Benjamin, ‘Unpacking My Library. A Talk about Book Collecting,‘ in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 2007), p. 67.
[v] Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects, trans. James Benedict (London: Verso, 1996), p. 76.
[vi] Ibid., p. 3.
[vii] Ibid., p. 85.
[viii] Ibid., p. 85–85.
[ix] Ibid., p. 85.
[x] Anon. 'Documenta 12 - Retrospective,' accessed August 18, 2018. Available at: https://www.documenta.de/en/retrospective/documenta_12.
[xi] Jean Baudrillard, op. cit., p. 90.
[xii] Ibid., p. 93.
[xiii] Ibid., p. 95.
[xiv] Jean Baudrillard, The Conspiracy of Art: Manifestos, Interviews, Essays, trans. Ames Hodges (New York: Semiotext(e), 2005), p. 27.
[xv] Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, trans. Charles Levin (St. Louis: Telos Press, 1981), p. 108.
[xvi] Ibid., p. 110.
[xvii] Ibid., p. 112.
[xviii] Arjun Appadurai, ‘Commodities and the Politics of Value,’ in Susan M. Pearce (ed.) Interpreting Objects and Collections (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 87.
[xix] Jean Baudrillard, op. cit., p. 115.
[xx] Ibid., pp. 121–22.
[xxi] Anon. 'Mission Statement - Generali Foundation,' accessed August 16, 2018. Available at: http://foundation.generali.at/en/generali-foundation/mission-statement.html.
[xxii] Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art (London: Verso Books, 2013), p. 28.