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Art in the Age of Biopolitics: From Artwork to Art Documentation
by Boris Groys (translation: Steven Lindberg)
art, documentary, Benjamin, biopolitics
Monday, August 30, 2004 12:18 GMT

from the Catalogue to Documenta 11 (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2002), pp 108-114.

In recent decades, it has become increasingly evident that the art world has shifted its interest away from the artwork and towards art documentation. This shift is particularly symptomatic of a broader transformation that art is undergoing today, and for that reason it deserves a detailed analysis. The artwork is traditionally understood as something that embodies art in itself, that makes it immediately present and visible. When we go to an exhibition, we usually assume that what we will see there - whether it is paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, videos, readymades, or installations - is art. Artworks can, of course, refer in one way or another to something other than themselves - say, to objects in reality or specific political subjects - but they cannot refer to art, because they are art. This traditional assumption about a visit to an exhibition or museum is proving more and more misleading. Increasingly, in art spaces today we are confronted not just with artworks but with art documentation. The latter can also take the form of paintings, drawings, photographs, videos, texts, and installations - that is to say, all the same forms and media in which art is usually presented - but in the case of art documentation these media do not present art but merely document it. Art documentation is by definition not art; it merely refers to art, and in precisely this way it makes it clear that art in this case is no longer present and immediately visible but rather absent and hidden.

Art documentation certainly documents art and refers to art in different ways. It may refer to performances, temporary installations, or happenings, which are documented in the same ways as theatrical performances. In such cases, one might say that these are art events that were present and visible at a particular time, and that the documentation that is exhibited later is merely intended as a way of recollecting them. Whether such a recollecting is really possible is, of course, an open question. Since the advent of deconstruction, if not before, we have been aware that the claim that past events can be recalled in this way must, at the very least, be considered problematic. Meanwhile, however, more and more art documentation is produced and exhibited that does not claim to make a past art event present. Examples include complex and varied artistic interventions in daily life, lengthy and complicated processes of discussion and analysis, the creation of unusual living circumstances, artistic exploration into the reception of art in various cultures and milieus, politically motivated artistic actions, and so on. None of these artistic activities can be presented except by means of art documentation, since from the very beginning these activities do not serve to produce an artwork in which art as such could manifest itself. Consequently, such art does not appear in object form - is not a product or result of a "creative" activity. Rather, art is itself this activity, is the practice of art as such. Correspondingly, art documentation is neither the making present of a past art event nor the promise of a coming artwork but the only possible form of reference to an artistic activity that cannot be represented in other way.

To misunderstand and trivialize art documentation as a "simple" artwork would be to overlook its originality, its identifying feature, which is precisely that it is a result without a result - that it documents art rather than presenting it. For those who devote themselves to the production of art documentation rather than of artworks, art is identical to life, because life is essentially a pure activity that does not lead to any end result. The presentation of any such end result - in the form of an artwork, say - would imply an understanding of life as merely a functional process whose own duration is negated and extinguished by the creation of the end product - which is equivalent to death. It is no coincidence that museums are traditionally compared to cemeteries: by presenting art as the end result of a life, they obliterate this life once and for all. Art documentation, by contrast, marks the attempt to use artistic media within art spaces to refer to life itself, that is, to a pure activity, to pure practice, to an artistic life, as it were, without wishing to present it directly. Art becomes a life form, whereas the artwork becomes non-art, a mere documentation of this life form. One could also say that art becomes biopolitical, because it begins to use artistic means to produce and document life as a pure activity. Indeed, art documentation as an art form could only develop under the conditions of today's biopolitical age, in which life itself has become the object of technical and artistic intervention. In this way, one is again confronted with the question of the relationship between art and life - and indeed in a completely new context, defined by the aspiration of today's art to become life itself, not merely to depict life or to offer it art products.

Traditionally, art was divided into pure, contemplative, high "fine" art and applied art - that is, design. The former was concerned not with reality but with images of reality. Applied art formed the things of reality themselves. In this respect, art resembled science, which also can also be divided into a theoretical and an applied version. The difference between fine art and theoretical science, however, is that science has wanted to make the images of reality that it creates as transparent as possible, in order to judge reality itself on the basis of these images, whereas art, taking another path, has taken as its theme materiality, lack of clarity, the autonomy of images and the resulting inability of these images adequately to reproduce reality. As a consequence, art has traditionally made the construction of the images itself the subject of its reflection - beyond the question of the extent to which the images are able to reproduce reality. (Thus, when art uses the same images as science, it usually does so with a critical, deconstructionist intention.) These images - from the "fantastic," the "unrealistic," by way of the Surrealistic and on up to the abstract - are intended to thematize the gap between art and reality. And even media that are usually thought of as reproducing reality faithfully - such as photography and film - are also used in the context of art in a way that seeks to undermine any faith in reproduction's ability to be faithful to reality. "Pure" art thus established itself on the level of the sign, the signifier. That to which the signs refer - reality', meaning, the signified - has, by contrast, traditionally been interpreted as belonging to life and thus removed from the sphere in which art is valid. Nor can it be said of applied art, however, that it concerns itself with life. Even if our environment is largely shaped by applied arts such as architecture, urban planning, product design, advertising, and fashion, it is still left to life to find the best way to deal with all these design products. Life itself as pure activity, as pure duration, is thus fundamentally inaccessible to the traditional arts, which remain oriented toward products or results in one form or another.

In our age of biopolitics, however, the situation is changing, for the principal concern of this kind of politics is the lifespan itself. Biopolitics is often confused with scientific and technical strategies of genetic manipulation that, at least potentially, aim at re-forming the individual living body. In these strategies, however, it is still a matter of design - albeit of a living organism. But the real achievement of biopolitical technplogies lies more in the shaping of the lifespan itself-in the shaping of life as a pure activity that occurs in time. From begetting and lifelong medical care by way of the regulation of the relationship between work time and free time up to death as supervised, or even brought about by, medical care, the lifetime of a person today is constantly shaped and improved artificially. Many authors, from Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben to Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, have written along these lines about biopolitics as the true realm in which political will and technology's power to shape things are manifested today. That is to say, if life is not longer understood as a natural event, as fate, as Fortuna, but rather as time artificially produced and fashioned, then life is automatically politicized, since the technical and artistic decisions with respect to the shaping of the lifespan are always political decisions as well. The art that is made under these new conditions of biopolitics - under the conditions of an artificially fashioned lifespan - cannot help but take this artificiality as its explicit theme. Now, however, time, duration, and thus life too cannot be shown directly but only documented. The dominant medium of modern biopolitics is thus bureaucratic and technological documentation, which includes planning, decrees, fact-finding reports, statistical inquiries, and project plans. It is no coincidence that art also uses the same medium of documentation when it wants to refer to itself as life.

Indeed, one feature of modern technology is that we are no longer able by visual means alone to make a firm distinction between the natural or organic and the artificial or technologically produced. This is demonstrated by genetically modified food, but also by the numerous discussions - particularly intense these days - about the criteria for deciding when life begins and when it ends. To put it another way, how does one distinguish between a technologically facilitated beginning of life, such as artificial insemination, for example, and a "natural" cont'nuation of that life, or distinguish that natural continuation, in turn, from an equally technology-dependent means of extending life beyond a "natural" death? The longer these discussions go on, the less the participants are able to agree on how precisely the line between life and death can be drawn. Almost all recent sci-fi films make a major theme of this inability to distinguish between the natural and the artificial: the surface of a living being can conceal a machine; conversely, the surface of a machine can conceal a living being - an alien, for example (1). The difference between a genuinely living creature and its artificial substitute is merely a product of the imagination here, of a supposition or suspicion that can be neither confirmed nor refuted by observation. But if the living thing can be reproduced and replaced at will, then it loses its unique, unrepeatable inscription in time - its unique, unrepeatable lifespan, which is ultimately what makes the living thing a living thing. And that is precisely the point at which the documentation becomes indispensable, producing the life of the living thing as such: the documentation inscribes the existence of an object in history, gives a lifespan to this existence, and gives the object life as such - independently of whether this object was "originally" living or artificial.

The difference between the living and the artificial is, then, exclusively a narrative difference. It cannot be seen but only told, only documented: an object can be given a prehistory, a genesis, an origin by means of narrative. The technical documentation is, incidentally, never constructed as history but always as a system of instructions for producing particular objects under given circumstances. The artistic .documentation, whether real or fictive, is, by contrast, primarily narrative, and thus it evokes the unrepeatability of living time. The artificial can thus be made living, made natural, by means of art documentation, by narrating the history of its origin, its "making". Art documentation is thus the art of making living things out of artificial ones, a living activity out of technical practice: it is a bio art that is simultaneously biopolitics. This basic function of artistic documentation was strikingly demonstrated by Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner". In the film, the artificially produced humans, called "replicants," are given photographic documentation at the time they are produced, which is supposed to certify their "natural origin" - faked photographs of their family, residences, and so on. Although this documentation is fictive, it gives the replicants life - subjectivity - which makes them indistinguishable from the "natural" human beings on the "inside" as well as the outside. Because the replicants are inscribed in life, in history, by means of this documentation, they can continue this life in an uninterrupted and thoroughly individual way. Consequently, the hero's search for a "real," objectively determinable distinction between the natural and the artificial ultimately proves to be futile, because, as we have seen, this distinction can only be established through narrative.

The fact that life is something that can be documented but not shown is not a new discovery. There are many reports of the soul's wanderings through various regions after death. All these reports, whether Platonic, Christian, or Buddhist, ultimately seek only to demonstrate that the soul continues to live even after the death of the visible body. One could even claim that this is the definition of life: life can be documented but not shown. In his book "Homo Sacer", Giorgio Agamben points out that the "bare life" has yet to achieve any political and cultural representation. Agamben himself proposes that we view the concentration camp as the cultural representation of the bare life, because its inmates are robbed of all forms of political representation - the only thing that can be said of them is that they are alive (2). They can therefore only be killed, not sentenced by a court or sacrificed. Agamben believes that life outside all laws yet anchored in law is paradigmatic of life itself. Even if there is much to be said for such a definition of life, it must be remembered that life in a concentration camp is generally thought to be beyond our powers of observation or imagination. Life in a concentration camp can be reported - it can be documented - but it cannot be presented for view (3).


In the case of art documentation as an art form, as we have said, it is not "the making of ..." any finished artwork that is documented. Rather, documentation becomes the sole result of art, which is understood as a form of life, a duration, a production of history. Art documentation thus describes the realm of biopolitics by showing how the living can be replaced by the artificial, and how the artificial can be made living by means of a narrative. A few examples will illustrate the appropriate strategies of documentation. .

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Moscow group Kollektivnye Deystviya (Collective Action Group) organized a series of performances conceived mostly by the artist Andrey Monastyrsky which took place outside Moscow with only the members of the group and a few invited guests present. These performances were made accessible to a wider audience only through documentation, in the form of photographs and texts (4). The texts did not so much describe the performances themselves as the experiences, thoughts, and emotions of those who took part in them - and as a result, they had a strongly narrative, literary character. These highly minimalist performances took place on a white, snow-covered field - a white surface that recalled the white background of Kazimir Malevich's Suprematist paintings, which has become the trademark of Russian avant-garde. At the same time, however, the significance of this white background, which Malevich had introduced as the symbol of the radical "non-objectivity" of his art, as a symbol of a break with all nature and all narrative, was completely transformed. Equating the Suprematist "artificial" white background with the "natural" Russian snow transposed the "non-objective" art of Malevich back into life - specifically, by using a narrative text that attributed another genealogy to (or rather, imposed that genealogy upon) the white of Suprematism. Malevich's paintings thus lose the character of autonomous artworks and are in turn reinterpreted as the documentation of a lived experience - in the snows of Russia.

This reinterpretation of the Russian avant-garde is even more direct in the work of another Moscow artist from this period, Francisco Infante, who in his performance "Posvjashchenie" (Dedication) spread one of Malevich's Suprematist compositions on the snow-once again replacing the white background with snow. A fictive "living" genealogy is attributed to Malevich's painting, as a result of which the painting is led out of art history and into life - as with the replicants in Blade Runner. This imposition of a living genealogy and the associated transformation of the artwork into a documented life opens up a space where all sorts of other genealogies could equally be discovered or invented, several of them quite plausible historically: for example, the white background of the Suprematist paintings can also be interpreted as the white piece of paper that serves as the background for every kind of bureaucratic, technological, or artistic documentation. In this sense, it could also be said that the documentation also has snow as its background - and thus the play of narrative inscriptions can be extended further and further.

Such a drama of narrative inscriptions is also staged in Sophie Calle's installation "Les aveugles" (The Blind) and "Blind Color". In "Les aveugles" of 1986 the artist documents a survey of blind people that the artist conducted, in which people who were born blind were asked to describe their conception of beauty. Several responses mentioned figurative artworks that, so these blind people had heard, depict the real, visible works in an impressive manner. In her installation, the artist confronts the descriptions given with reproductions of the paintings described. For "Blind Color" of 1991 Sophie Calle asked blind people to describe what they see, then wrote their answers on panels, which she juxtaposed with texts on monochrome painting by artists such as Malevich, Yves Klein, Gerhard Richter, Piero Manzoni, and Ad Reinhardt. In these art documentations, which are presented as the results of sociological experiments, the artist manages, in a particularly striking way, to attribute another genealogy not just to examples of traditional figurative art but also to specific modern paintings that were conceived as artificial, abstract, and autonomous. She does this by confronting them with two ways of life: that of the seeing and that of the blind. Here, once again, art is transformed into documented life. In doing so, however, life is no longer understood as the visible external world that can or should be mimetically reproduced. For the blind, of course, this visible external world was from the very beginning a narrative. The concept of life thus gains an even more obvious biopolitical significance - it no longer has to do with the things of life but with ways of life as such, which are not depicted by paintings but merely documented by them.

Finally, we should mention here Carsten Holler's performance "The Baudouin/Boudewijn Experiment: A Large-Scale, Non-Fatalistic Experiment in Deviation", which took place in the Atomium in Brussels in 2001. A group of people were enclosed in the interior of the spheres that make up the Atomium, where they spent an entire day cut off from the outside world. Holler frequently engages in transforming the "abstract," minimalist spaces of radical architecture into spaces for experience - another way of transforming art into life by means of documentation. In this case, he chose for his performance a space that embodies a utopian dream and does not immediately suggest a domestic environment. Primarily, however, the work alludes to commercial television shows such as "Big Brother", with its portrayal of people forced to spend a long time together in an enclosed space. The difference between a commercial television documentation and art documentation becomes particularly clear. Precisely because television shows uninterrupted images of these enclosed people, the viewer begins to suspect manipulation, constantly asking what might be happening in the space hidden behind these images in which "real" life takes place. By contrast, Holler's performance is not shown but merely documented - specifically, by means of the participants' narratives, which articulate precisely that which could not be seen. Here, then, life is understood as something narrated and documented but unable to be shown or presented. This lends the documentation a plausibility that a direct visual presentation cannot possess.

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