The Object of Art History

I have an interview with Amsterdam-based art critic and historian Sven Lutticken in the latest V2_ebook, BlowUp: Speculative Realities (free download), in which we glance back to modernism and minimalism to think the aesthetic commodity in Smithson’s wake, amidst eco-crisis and the so-called speculative realist turn.

An except from Sven’s responses to my questions: 

if art became crucial for philosophy – for the philosophy of the ‘aesthetic turn’ – because it showed matter to be imbued with spirit, modern art engaged in a flirtation with various forms of base materialism, with matter conceived to be outside the human. The shipwreck of spirit. The Bataille of the journal Documents is, of course, a prime example of such a project – which in this case was itself a truly aesthetic hybrid of the artistic and the philosophical, and which was in effect one episode in Bataille’s critical long engagement with idealism, and with Hegel in particular. Today, in the collapsing Anthropocene, to think matter from outside the human obviously poses different challenges, as the material fabric of our planet has been inexorably altered by human intervention. This was something recognized by Smithson. On the one hand, he turned entropy into something of a fetish, seemingly subjugating history to a natural law (the second law of thermodynamics); on the other hand, he was well aware that human activity accelerated entropy, and that a cosmic given had thereby become a social and political problem – which became the basis of his aesthetic project. By now, planet earth is itself the ultimate artwork, a subject-object out of control, an actant acting up in ways we cannot control. We may want to think matter from outside the human, but matter itself won’t let us.

The ebook accompanies an exhibition curated by Michelle Kasprzak, featuring new art works commissioned by V2_ Institute for the Unstable Media. The exhibition launched at at Roodkapje, Meent 121 – 133, Rotterdam, The Netherlands December 8 2012 – January 11 2013.

Exhibition Information

This edition of V2_’s Blowup series of events and exhibitions will examine the how and the why of speculative realism, object-oriented ontology and artistic practice. Four new art commissions examine different aspects of Object-oriented ontology (OOO), such as a non-human-centered view of the world, and the limits of knowledge. An e-book of interviews with artists and thinkers, released with a short talk at the exhibition finissage, will round out the programme and provide insights into the relationship between this exciting turn in philosophy and contemporary art and design. Commissioned artists include Tuur van Balen & Revital Cohen (BE/UK), Cheryl Field (UK), and Karolina Sobecka (US).


The term ‘speculative realism’ was coined at a conference at goldsmiths in 2007 chaired by Alberto Toscano that included the philosophers Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton grant, graham Harman and Quentin Meillassoux. Since then the term has split into factions like object-oriented ontology (OOO), spawned a number of journals (Speculations and O-Zone), book series and several other conferences and debates. The theme can be taken as part of a current philosophical interest in rethinking correlationism (an act of division between human and world), and is broadly congruent with existing discussions of the nonhuman, more-than-human and other frameworks of new materialism. Many key points of these conceptual trends are also pertinent to current trends in artistic practice: a non-anthropocentric worldview; an interest in modes of ontological levelling (a democracy of things); a consideration of aggregate forces like climate through cat- egories of autonomy.

New Aesthetic, New Anxieties

This recent collaboration, the book New Aesthetic, New Anxieties was the result of a five day Book Sprint organized by Michelle Kasprzak at Rotterdam’s V2_ Institute for Unstable Media, led by Book Sprint facilitator Adam Hyde onsite at V2_ from June 17–21, 2012. Our seven authors, all curators and/or media theorists – David M. Berry, Michel van Dartel, Michael Dieter, Michelle Kasprzak, Nat Muller, José Luis de Vicente and myself – were almost all strangers to each other before the project. We managed to produce quite a solid text in just 4 days, which has since been profiled by Bruce Sterling in and also reviewed here. The blurb:

‘The New Aesthetic’ was a design concept and netculture phenomenon launched into the world by London designer James Bridle in 2011. It continues to attract the attention of media art, and throw up associations to a variety of situated practices, including speculative design, net criticism, hacking, free and open source software development, locative media, sustainable hardware and so on. This is how we have considered the New Aesthetic: as an opportunity to rethink the relations between these contexts in the emergent episteme of computationality. There is a desperate need to confront the political pressures of neoliberalism manifested in these infrastructures. Indeed, these are risky, dangerous and problematic times; a period when critique should thrive. But here we need to forge new alliances, invent and discover problems of the common that nevertheless do not eliminate the fundamental differences in this ecology of practices. In this book, perhaps provocatively, we believe a great deal could be learned from the development of the New Aesthetic not only as a mood, but as a topic and fix for collective feeling, that temporarily mobilizes networks. Is it possible to sustain and capture these atmospheres of debate and discussion beyond knee-jerk reactions and opportunistic self-promotion? These are crucial questions that the New Aesthetic invites us to consider, if only to keep a critical network culture in place.

There have been 44 of these Book Sprints, founded by our facillitator Adam Hyde, all of them successful. I’ve become very interested in the process of Booksprints as a means of collective, long-form attention gathering in the age of conference and panel-based ‘talking in the air’ and web-based ‘writing into ether’ (and academic writing behind paywalls). The result I think speaks for itself and we ourselves were very surprised by the quality of what was produced in such a short time period between us. Very interested in your critical reviews.

You can download EPUB, MOBI, PDF, and annotatable online versions of the book at the links on the V2 website. We’re also working on lulu version so you can print it out and put in on your shelf.