Uncommon Goods: Global Dimensions of the Readymade

Uncommon Goods: Global Dimensions of the Readymade

by Jaimey Hamilton Faris


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Since Marcel Duchamp created his “readymades” a century ago—most famously christening a urinal as a fountain— the practice of incorporating commodity objects into art has become ever more pervasive. Uncommon Goods traces one particularly important aspect of that progression: the shift in artistic concern toward the hidden ethical dimensions of global commerce. Jaimey Hamilton Faris discusses the work of, among many others, Ai Weiwei, Cory Arcangel, Thomas Hirschhorn, and Santiago Sierra, reading their artistic explorations as overlapping with debates about how common goods hold us and our world in common. The use of readymade now registers concerns about international migrant labor, outsourced manufacturing, access to natural resources, intellectual copyright, and the commoditization of virtual space.

In each chapter, Hamilton Faris introduces artists who exemplify the focus of readymade aesthetics on aspects of global commodity culture, including consumption, marketing, bureaucracy, labor, and community. She explores how materially intensive, “uncommon” aesthetic situations can offer moments to meditate on the kinds of objects, experiences, and values we ostensibly share in the age of globalization. The resulting volume will be an important contribution to scholarship on readymade art as well as to the study of materiality, embodiment, and globalization.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781841505725
Publisher: Intellect, Limited
Publication date: 10/15/2013
Pages: 136
Product dimensions: 6.60(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Jaimey Hamilton is assistant professor of art history at the University of Hawaii.

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Uncommon Goods

Global Dimensions of the Readymade

By Jaimey Hamilton Faris

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2013 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84150-572-5


Of Kula Rings and Commodity Chains

As a dominant cultural-political-economic system, capitalism has dramatically transformed over the course of its four-century existence. With the mutually constitutive elements of private property, markets, international trade, currency, credit, and most importantly, wage labor, it is characterized (distinct from earlier market or currency economies) as a system predicated on continual growth and expansion. Arguably, some of its most dramatic historical moments have happened since World War II: the remarkable post-Fordist development in flexible production, the 1973 oil crisis, the "winning" of the Cold War, the development of integrated global financial systems, and more recently, the global debt crises in which countries, banks, and multinational corporations were bailed out because they were "too big to fail," in such an integrated world system.

Contemporary capitalism's most remarkable developments are indebted to a mundane feature rarely mentioned on the news or in history books: This is the commodity chain. In its current global formation, the commodity chain is a worldwide integration of raw materials, labor, information, factories, and container ships. Finished goods are often sold halfway around the world from where their raw materials are sourced, and where their many components were thought up, made, and assembled. Commodity chains link not only the business owner to the laborer and the consumer (Marx's understanding of capitalist production in the nineteenth century), but now they also connect multiple raw materials sites, strip mines, subcontracted factories, locations of corporate offices, offshore banking accounts, stock holders, shipping ports, chain stores, marketing and design teams, as well as a myriad of workers and suppliers at the consumer end.

This model is a new manifestation of a long history of the world trade system. While trading networks have always been a part of intercultural economies, they have gone from patterns reminiscent of Kula rings (the gift economy of the Massim archipelago famously described by Marcel Mauss in 1923, who drew on the work Bronislaw Malinowski); to the loose threads of the Silk Road meandering over Eurasia; to the transatlantic slave trade triangle in the colonial era. Now trade networks are represented as an explosion of vectored lines emanating from every major sea and airport on the globe. As distinct from earlier world systems, current global commodity chains invest in a vaster and wider set of variables, but are, paradoxically, often organized according to regional trade zone agreements that can take full advantage of fast transportation and the borderline disparities between trading partners in terms of materials, tariffs, labor, and access of information.

As the structures of making and trading commodities have shifted, they have been challenged by its subjects on cultural and ethical grounds, not least by artists who have sought to shift, in even the smallest way, our perceptions toward the invisible forces of globalization. The development of affectual readymades, as art practices embedded in the expansion of commodity diversity and availability since the mid-twentieth century, can be seen as variable efforts to call attention to the emerging ethical and political dilemmas of the global capitalist imaginary. In looking at a few examples of affectual readymades from the sixties to the present, this chapter proposes that the practice developed in tandem with post-war capitalism's move toward globalization. Of key importance is how the practice expanded dramatically at the same historic point of trade liberalization in the nineties, and in response to the explosive new complexity of global commodity chains.

First, a few points of clarification are in order: This is not a history of the recurrence of the nominal readymade, in which the long-established conceptual strategy is evaluated as either "working" or not in its historical recurrence. (This is often the complaint leveraged against the Duchampian repetition of Warhol and Jeff Koons, for instance.) Rather, what I am most interested in is the evolving efficacy of the affectual readymade strategy within the expansion of contemporary capitalism. The chapter will describe the distinct material situations in the Cold War of the sixties and seventies to which artists responded; these compare very differently to the cultural and economic terrain in which artists in the eighties developed their approaches. By the mid-nineties, globalization again manifested new approaches.

In recounting such a schematic narrative of the affectual readymade, I hope to complement the predominant one of "dematerialized" institutional art critique. The following history can connect artworks that have received much attention, but have not yet been seen through this lens of material, rather than conceptual, priority. Moreover, it can clarify some commonalities in the aesthetic strategies of assemblage, conceptual practices, performance, commodity art, and installation art that span the decades after World War II.

This leads to another point that needs clarification. Artists developing affectual readymade strategies did not all share a singular or stable political viewpoint on the everyday life of the capitalist imaginary. What is apparent, however, is that many of the art forms that incorporated commodities indicate a developing materialist view of capitalism in avant-garde art. Approaches to the readymade expanded out of the gallery and developed in the context of systems theory by the sixties. The commodity was seen as materially connected to capitalism's everyday context, not isolated by the art frame. In appropriating an aspect of a cultural-economic structure, artists were definitely playing with the ways in which such strategic material manipulation could change the perception of the commodity chain, and possibly even reconfigure it.

To borrow Appadurai's phrasing from Modernity at Large (1996: 18), artists using affectual readymade strategies are very interested in how "global facts take local form." Each of the art works described in this chapter remind us that globalization has been an uneven negotiation of materials and material cultures across national borders . It may be a system of commodity chains with deep ethical and political problems, but those chains are composed of millions of linking materialities and subjectivities that generate new aspects of capitalism's system on a daily basis. Artists seem keen on participating in these local moments of contestation, when commodity chains could be symbolically and literally exposed, ruptured, or transformed.

Post-war models

The sixties saw some pretty radical shifts in the way artists appropriated and used commodities within the art frame. The interrelated art movements of Neo-Dada, Nouveau Réalisme, Fluxus International, Happenings, and Situationism all redirected the readymade form toward a focus on the internationalization of consumer spectacle. To varying degrees, the manifestos, art production and discussions related to these movements evidence a concern about the nature of "the real." Interestingly, many of these artists explored "the real" through the production of "unreal" parodic versions of mundane consumer objects and behavior — games, models, fakes, imitations, and demonstrations. Claes Oldenburg created outsized burgers, soft toilets, and household goods at his Ray Gun Manufacturing Co. and then put them up for sale at The Store; Warhol was making fake wooden Brillo boxes in "The Factory"; George Maciunas started Implosions, Inc. and the Fluxus "warehouse," where he collected contributions from artists around the world who sent in games, poems, and other curiosities to sell as Flux multiples. Artist Akasegawa Genpei of the Japanese collective Hi Red Center (a Fluxus affiliate) created his own fake canned goods, imitation currency, and strange wrapped furniture pieces that ended up as part of this distribution network. All of these objects and activities looked like, acted like, were composed like, but, significantly, were not "real" commodities or businesses. Together they manifested a network of absurdist events and object exchanges that responded to new networks of post-war international commodity trade and the expansion of multinational business systems.

In June 1964, at the Naiqua Gallery in Tokyo, amidst a heightened atmosphere of anti-Anpo demonstrations against American commercial and military presence, Akasegawa presented an opened tin can on a pedestal. The container was emptied of its contents, cleaned, and the Canadian Queen Crab (an expensive import variety) label removed and pasted on the inside. Akasegawa called this piece Uchuu no Kanzume (Kani-kan) or Cosmic Can. Its authority as art depended on Duchampian "choice," but also on viewers asking what Akasegawa wanted them to see as "canned." Was it the meat, now presumably consumed and absent from their vision? The manufactured container sitting on the pedestal? Or was the empty, inside-out can a way of labeling anything and everything beyond its perimeter and off its pedestal part of the readymade reality? The gallery. The cars and commerce outside. The attending flows of money, including the national trade negotiations concerning imported crab. The social relations and desires that orchestrated the existence of both can and crab meat. The sweat of laborers on Japanese fishing vessels and in canneries. Akasegawa insisted on making this whole interconnected system visible.

Cosmic Can was one of many tins and jars manipulated in different ways for Akasegawa's show, which itself was called Great Panorama. The exhibition, mimicking the reversal of space in Cosmic Can, was only available to be viewed from within during the opening, which was actually at the end of the exhibition's weeklong run. Otherwise, the doors and windows were boarded up with a closed sign, turning the art viewing experience inside out. Just these very subtle interventions were meant to offer post-war Japanese viewers a pretty radical perceptual shift of their material reality. The thematic was specifically set up to so that a view of trade competition and new global connections were fairly evident in such seemingly innocent objects.

Akasegawa made Cosmic Can when he was already under scrutiny by the Japanese government, which had accused him of counterfeiting the 1000-yen note. The previous year, as part of the invitation for another of his exhibitions, he had printed a bunch of obviously fake, one-sided notes aimed at creating a visibility for currency's role in Japan's cultivation of an Americanized middle-class lifestyle. As his indictment developed into a series of regional and Supreme Court trials through the decade, Akasegawa framed the whole experience as an extended art activity and called it Model 1000-Yen Note Incident [Mokei sen-en satsu jiken]. (He was eventually convicted and sentenced to 3 months of hard labor, indefinitely suspended).

He considered the counterfeit currency, his altered tin cans, as well as his other artworks made during this time, "models." Models were related to, but not actually, commodities. Instead, they were materialities, uncanny non-commodities that in their imitation and transformation of "real things," disturbed the commodity's naturalized presence. As he argued in his manifesto, "Capitalist Realism," (1964), it was almost impossible to expose the power of real objects, so the best way he imagined to solve this was to displace what he saw as the "trembling of the monopoly enterprise of 'real things'" with fake and uncanny ones that could upset a viewer's presuppositions (Akasegawa 1964).

These strange models of Akasegawa's were cataloged as part of his Hi Red Center activities, and sold for purchase with real money, in the Fluxus catalog. Akasegawa's ironic process clearly jived with Fluxus's own agenda of presenting itself as a parodic version of an international corporation (Dumett 2009) with headquarters in Soho and global divisions of Fluxus-North, Fluxus-South, Fluxus-East and Fluxus-West (bringing together artists hailing from France, Germany, Japan, Korea, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, and the United States). The purpose of the group was explained early on by critic and gallery director Jean-Pierre Wilhelm in terms of materializing strategies: "It is no longer a matter of yelling. It's a matter of mattering! But how to matter?" (1962). The Fluxus manifesto of February 1963, pasted with definitions of flux, indicated some methods: "Purge, tide, and fuse." In handwriting at the bottom, Fluxus chairman and manager George Maciunas noted specifically: "purge the world of bourgeois sickness, intellectual, professional and commercialized culture." Akasegawa's political sympathies dovetailed with Fluxus perfectly. He also wanted to get to the matter of matter again, and so in creating pieces in Japan for the catalogs distributed around the world, he saw himself participating in a large-scale international avant-garde effort to disturb and displace the international commodity chains of "real" commodities.

Akasegawa's work at this time obviously varied in approach, but not in purpose. This could be said of many of the new art forms emerging in the sixties as artists experimented with disturbing and displacing the business efficiency systems of a new international culture. In Paris, Pierre Restany wrote about Nouveau Réalisme as "Forty Degrees Above Dada," specifically arguing that the anti-art gesture of Duchamp had to be transformed into an artistic interest manifesting the "entire sociological reality, the common good of human activity, the large republic of social exchanges, or our commerce in society" (Restany 1961). Arman's large-scale accumulations and Jean Tinguely's self-destroying machines both recognized and parodied the new chains of production to consumption evident in the emerging consumer republics across the United States and Europe. Wolf Vostell's dé-coll/age practices (begun in 1962) culled together "frank, distorted forms of mobile fragments of reality" that sought, in the artist's understanding, to penetrate consumer culture's perpetuation of the innocent non-history of objects, the new "disaster of peace" (Vostell 1999). Martha Jackson put together the New Media-New Forms show that included Oldenberg's The Store and other aggressively composed assemblages.

Even before Fluxus got its warehouse up and running, assemblage and Happenings were making their international debut as a new form-principle in William Seitz's Art of Assemblage show for the New York MoMA in 1961, an extensive international overview of the phenomenon. The excitement about assemblage was essentially acknowledged as a renewal of the readymade and collage strategy but mixed with the expressive poetics of trash. This moment arguably became the testing ground for leveraging the dadaistic and surrealistic discreet "found object" more consciously into a continuum of the commodity's social life. How could an object be used to relate the viewer back to the radical changes in the materiality of everyday life happening on an international level?

Rauschenberg's assemblages, like so many others of that era, incorporated more and more material that immediately referenced the vertiginous rhythms of capitalism. Coca-Cola Plan, 1958, for instance, turned Coke bottles into trashy classical Greek winged victory goddesses perched atop an old finial, tilted so that its striations became the latitudinal lines of the world. It likened American commercial ambitions for an internationalized world to the Marshall Plan. Money Thrower, Rauschenberg's silver dollar flinging machine made for Jean Tinguely's Homage to New York, 1960, allegorized the uncontrollable wealth and excess of the city. Moreover, both sculptures were made with the material found on the streets and trashcans of Lower Manhattan; they were the uncontained overflow emanating from the belly of the emerging obsolescence beast.

Rauschenberg's objects obviously questioned the purpose and efficiency of the new throwaway culture, which had developed not just as result of technological advancement, but also as a particular political and economic dynamic of the Cold War commodity chains. Immediately after the war, the U.S. held 48 percent of the world's production power and industrial capacity (Palat 2004). The emerging discussion between the American business sector and the government was about how to create new international commodity markets and consistent trading partners. All of this came together as business and national leaders, along with the newly-formed IMF and World Bank, set upon stabilizing a very dexterous type of international capitalism with new ideological and desiring machines that would complement the production machines in ever more multiplicitous and complex relationships (Strasser 1989; Daunton and Hilton 2001).


Excerpted from Uncommon Goods by Jaimey Hamilton Faris. Copyright © 2013 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Table of Contents



Introduction:  Materializing the Commodity Situation, or Toward the Affectual Readymade

Chapter 1:  Of Kula Rings and Commodity Chains

Chapter 2:  Common Goods

Chapter 3:  Apparel

Chapter 4:  Digital Media

Chapter 5:  Labor and Services

Chapter 6:  Land and Natural Resources



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