On Curating: Mad Love, Orphan Letters, Open Archives

Peter Lewis

/seconds invites submissions from artists and non-artists alike to unpack and present material unseen, unheard or unpublished. To move work from the archives, libraries, plan chests, or storage containers, in other words, to the space of contradiction implicated in an 'open' archive; to exorcise its phantoms. Origin therein, as it were, will speak for itself. The success of the excavation might sign the effacement of the archivist (or curator), who succeeds in making the archive (and its guardian) serve no function, no Origin, no secret. (re: 'Archive Fever, A Freudian Impression', Jacques Derrida, 1996)

In ‘Mad Love’, André Breton’s poem of 1937, the line 'my own openness' might be ascribed as 'useful' both as an action and an indifference in the disclosure of unreconciled material; these unseen works and collections of ideas interpolate through 'mysterious communication' if without cause, from one fiction, into another of self-invention.

Presenting a manual of instruction (an open archive) for rethinking acceptable notions of egality as perhaps suggested in the title ‘La Pensée Sauvage’ (Claude Levi-Strauss’ 1962 anthropological work, translated into English by a double meaning of ‘The Savage Mind’, ‘Pansies for Thought’ or more strangely ‘Wild Pansies’) an unexpected encounter with these double fictions, disembodied voices, orphan letters and open archives presents us with something conceptually 'uncompatable' with given data - an encounter Jacques Rancière terms 'literarity' and 'the orphan word' (from Plato's Phaedro) as the ability to disturb the existing circuits of words, images, their meanings and places of enunciation.

The problem, in the 'real' world, inscribed within any action of openness, as Breton's poetic 'Mad Love', to offer provocative, powerful, and novel definitions of democratic politics and of art, is whether the taking-part of those who have, or have had no part in it is specified. To sustain or to be unsustainable, regardless to affirm the act 'independent of what happens and what does not happen'. What is proper to art, and finally nameable, is its identity with non-art. The configuration and conflation of art into 'democratic politics' must be itself ideologically 'unpacked', taken into account, if the distribution is not to be absorbed by the spectral fascination of a logic of dominance and insignificance. Strictly speaking the egalitarian regime of the sensible can only isolate art's specificity at the expense of losing it. We return again happily empty handed, back to the André Breton's inviolable Mad Love.

'Such an abuse (ed. such as the Internet) opens the ethico-political dimension of the problem. There is not one archive fever, one limit or one suffering of memory among others: enlisting the infinite, archive fever verges on radical evil.' (From 'Archive Fever', Jacques Derrida, 1998, translated by Eric Prenowitz)

'The key issue consists in thinking love not as destiny, but as encounter and thought, as an asymmetrical and egalitarian becoming, as the invention of oneself.' (From Chapter 11, 'Avant gardes' in ‘The Century’, Alain Badiou, March 2000 translated by Alberto Toscano)

'A pox on all captivity, even in Montezuma's gardens of precious stones! Still today I am only counting on what comes of my own openness, my eagerness to wander in search of everything, which, I am confident, keeps me in mysterious communication with other open beings, as if we were to suddenly called to assemble, I would like my life to leave after it no other murmur than that of a watchman's song, of a song to while away the waiting. Independent of what happens and what does not happen, the wait itself is magnificent.' (From Chapter 3, in ‘Mad Love’, André Breton, 1937, translated by Mary Ann Caws)

'If I want to imagine a fictive nation, I can give it an invented name, treat it declaratively as a novelistic object, create a new Garabagne, so as to compromise no real country by my fantasy (though it is then that fantasy itself I compromise by the signs of literature)....' ('Faraway', ‘Empire of Signs’, Roland Barthes, 1970 translated by Richard Howard)


('It is necessary to dream') slogan / caption from ‘Histoire[s] du Cinema’ (video, Jean-Luc Godard, 1988, Gaumont Pathé Archives); also as a pun in ‘(Il) Faut Rever Mozart’, read in English as ‘Forever Mozart’ (1996), 35mm film by Jean-Luc Godard, concerning the performance in Sarajevo's troubled times of Musset’s play "On Ne Badine Pas Avec L'Amour" (One mustn't trifle with love") by a group of young (amateur) actors.

'There is no meta-language of Art' Alain Badiou

'Thoughts are a dice-throw' Mallarmé, concerning the poem 'Un Coup de Des Jamais n'Abolira le Hasard' ('A Throw of the Dice Never Will Abolish Chance')

'Moreover, doesn’t the pathological peculiarity of the capitalist machine consist in its ability to do just this: convert random empirical facts into new axioms? Integrated global capitalism is constitutively dysfunctional: it works by breaking down. It is fuelled by the random undecidabiities, excessive inconsistencies, aleatory interruptions, while it continuously reappropriates, axiomatising empirical contingency. It turns catastrophe into a resource, ruin into opportunity, harnessing the uncompatable.' (From 'Remarks on Subtractive Ontology' Ray Brassier, in ‘Think Again, Alain Badiou and the Future of Philosophy’, Edited by Peter Hallward, 2004)

Collected together these excerpts might suggest an affirmation for subject's actions availed paradoxically of the digital immediacy and excess of the World Wide Web, (capital ‘fusing’ through technology). In the open assembly with others with respect to the operation of randomness, we might propose a form of art out of ‘given’ algorithmic data. (As perhaps anticipated in the archival instructions and notes by Marcel Duchamp, that break the seal on his hermetic work ‘Etant Donnés’ or ‘Given’. (See Duchamp, Marcel. Manual of Instructions for Étant Donnés: 1º La Chute D'eau 2º Le Gaz D'éclairage. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1987), to connote a contradictory relation that chance is both given, and not given at the same time); of many contradictions concerning things ' abstraction; writings, tapes, photographs of studios, rooms designated to shelving systems; books, manuals of instruction, selected notes, drawings, documents, home-made films, videos, montages, scrapbooks, cut-ups, letters, collected decorative objects, fetishes, etcetera, which a digital an-archive, disassembles to index a co-extensive yet blind production as the self-evidence of love's indifference to and corrosion of any set destination, because they allow themselves the subaltern state of an indefinite or different relation between them, “everything that has limited or no access to the cultural imperialism is subaltern - a space of difference, ” (Spivak): that it may be a powerfully active resistance lead by indifference and subtraction [as Breton effortlessly shows in the figure of the wanderer) to substitutions to other less joyful 'arbitrary' numbers. "There is a number indissolubly linked between chance and numerical necessity, which is not abolished by the dice-throw." (A.Badiou) Number is the cipher of the concept. New axioms foment subjects out of randomness.

Certain mathematical truths cannot be proved. So resides the subject ‘chance’, the ‘not-all-ness’, as a constituted incompleteness, whereby the Real punctures the consistency of a symbolic order, coinciding with an objective, digital, random, algorithmic truth to the unfolding of an unprecedented event.

Breton’s mad love ennobles idleness to success (such as whiling away waiting time with the ‘wanderer’s song’) and need not be compromised by the mathematic of ones and zeros. The same is held to be true of Mallarmé’s dice throw, as a thinker of the number. Yes, every thought still persistently emits a dice-throw. It is however the regime of numbers that falls short of Mallarmé’s open thinking. Meanings as carried by opinions / knowledge, as monuments erected to the mythic stature of the neo-liberal state. Purloined letters from rebellion's scribes are easily erased, rewritten, extracted, and reproduced for some claustrophobic future 'curatorial' conceit, since the ecstatic abandon to rebellion needs only the lost spark of an essential passivity to relinquish the collective ego amid the fever of its destructive energy. The flame of achievement dwindles, to leave only the passivity itself, of a longer term of life servitude, to a return to the rule of convention.

The Subject of contemporary art has been thoroughly reinscribed under the rubric of Duchampian method (or anti-method) as its final destination. The symbolic violence of History is recast in gold as an absolute value. Was it not Sherrie Levine who actually cast Duchamp’s infamous urinals, as a critique of the institution? If what fails again, will fail better, is it to end all failure? We are awakened in the age of Restoration.

The question raised by and in the medium of the public realm of the internet as the complete digital archive of the 'human', such as ‘Facebook’, for an example of Restoration's ‘egalitarian utopianism’ as a libidinal drive for Unity, cannot occupy the ‘not-all’, susceptible to thought as an 'orphan letter' - something entering public language that is able to transform or disintegrate it, where the integration is being publicly disavowed and privately endorsed. The breaking down of public and private in the artistic process might become a more volatile affirmation of process again.

ORPHAN LETTERS OF AN ARCHIVIST: [dis] affirmations of present time, of inevitable passivity after rebellion

In the film 'About Schmidt' (Alexander Payne, 2002) Warren Schmidt is a man in his 60's. While trying to run his daughter's life, he realizes in his terminal melancholia that he wasted his. An orphan from Africa somewhere beyond his scope writes Schmidt a letter, and as if from that somewhere metaphorically outside of his fear of the unknowable, the letter has the effect of breaking down resilience to change, of displacing his experience by affecting discomfort (like melting snow). The orphan's letter then performs, without Hollywood noticing, and as Plato might have perhaps suggested, the 'orphan letter’ i.e. something spoken without the Father's precedence and which is capable of assuaging into the integration of a dominant system of thinking. As a powerless and undistinguished voice from the outside of the outside system of bourgeois oppositions - it never the less forces itself through the nihilistic centre, which cannot hold the endless crisis of production and reproduction of itself no matter how violent the exertion and guise.

Again in the film ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events' (Lemony Snicket, 2004) three wealthy children's parents are killed in a fire. When they are sent to a distant relative, they find out that he is plotting to kill them and seize their fortune. The three orphan children receive a belated letter, purloined by the bureaucratic machinations of the postal system, at the very end of the film. The letter is sent from their long since dead parents describing unfortunate or seemingly negative events which they will in retrospect re-read as positive beginnings of adventure whose abandonment to any future is now awakened as redemption. The 'literarity' (see J.Rancière) of this act / occurrence is embedded in that it breaks down something like anticipation of certitude and also of its retrospection, since it enlightens that nothing can ever be completely known. Reading these examples outside their intention to conserve, against the idea of 'the orphan word ' a departure from the circularity of difference is set up by the informality of the letter. It might dissolve relativist inscriptions such as a curatorial index’s moral stamp of approval, to have poisoned as it cured.

"Revolution is completely independent of the chance it has to modify the state of affairs that gave rise to it.... it is not the engine of change for the situation; it is the wager that the sign of excess can be changed.” (Alain Badiou on André Breton in ‘The Century’).

Some more ideas about artists' archives, vis a vis a signature of change

In an age when we must be forced to admit a difficulty in the avant garde's project of a didactic-romantic bind, we are perforce witness to reaction, and foreclose on pointless salvage or return to better days; despite the uses and abuses of the admirable and exemplary rebellions, the innocent, failed 'abandon' of avant gardes, something troubling still keeps lurking. It is as if in passivity their signature is recoded in excess of meaning. In a multitude of idiosyncratic forms, the display of artists' archives are witness, an attempt to undermine fascination, to reclaim the pain, turned to pleasure, of a 'wanderer's song'. Thus the unacknowledged archivist has kept her word (literally in archives) as a promise and sends her 'orphan letters' (Plato’s term for the power of unclaimed and unrecognised speech to transform) as a powerful, yet discrete, response to the saturation of signs by common language. Artist- archives present a non-objective, anamorphic view of their history in material forms, within the economies of the present, because of the potential that they may hold in 'store' to destabilise the authority of the word, the image, and of the naturalised regime of cultural representations.


Rancière based the poetical account of language and speech (poetical in the sense of creation, formation, making happen) on a rereading of Plato's critique of writing (in Phaedro). The written word – the "orphan word" Plato calls it – is always a supplementary element in relation to the communal order. It can liberate itself from a situation in which the roles of the proper addresser and the addressee, as well as the limits of what is sayable, are strictly determined. The written word can be appropriated by anyone. Unlike the individual utterance of the spoken word which is tied to ‘the logic of the proper’, the written word, unexpected and inexhaustible, presents a certain ‘wandering excess’ in relation to the world of carefully distributed roles, tasks and the speech that is understood as properly belonging to the individuals and groups that are seen as performing these roles and tasks within the communal order. This excess of words over the existing distribution of the common that establishes the communal order represents the egalitarian power of language – which Rancière calls literarity – the ability to disturb the existing circuits of words, meanings and places of enunciation. "Humans are political animals," Rancière says, "for two reasons: first, because we have the power to put into circulation more words, ‘useless’ and unnecessary words, words that exceed the function of rigid designation; secondly, because this fundamental ability to proliferate words is unceasingly contested by those who claim to 'speak correctly'."

This issue will deal with an idea of opening up the process, of works usually concealed behind closed doors or cemented/saturated in the dominant cultural tolerance of art as difference. True difference is not to be confused here with official representation of its working through in the tolerance of museums or the expanded field of a transcendent 'outside' the museum's walls, in urban or suburban contexts of the naturalised real. The process reveals an affinity with the early avant-gardism of 'etant donné' as susceptible to the double bind of its virtual / inhuman reproduction (i.e. decomposition of physical material) as anticipated by Duchamp.

The logic of excess of the digital archive is one, permitting everything that incapacitates by equalising, yet may provide the conditions for an affirmation in the sign of excess. Something like the slogan "We will know what we do not now know,” can perhaps be rewritten as discomfiting about knowledge, in the present- future, as "We will have known what we did not want to know, under the sign of excess.” Here an artistic process is to be interrogated again by interrupting further the attempted logic of its future invitation, the staging' in the museum's phenomenological real that, in the conditional material of present-less time, is anything but real. It's therefore fortunate that we can still remember the wanderer's song.


20th Century Models Artists who curate

Marcel Duchamp, Étant Donnés

In 1943, Duchamp rented a studio on the top floor of a building located at 210 West 14th Street in New York City. While everyone believed that Duchamp had given up ‘art’, he was secretly constructing this tableau, begun in 1946, which was not completed until 1966. The full title of the piece (in English) is: Given: 1 The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas. It consists of an old wooden door, bricks, velvet, twigs; gathered by Duchamp on his walks in the park, leather stretched over a metal armature of a female form, glass, linoleum, an electric motor, etc. Duchamp prepared a ‘Manual of Instructions’ in a 4-ring binder, which explains and illustrates the process of assembling/disassembling the piece. (See Duchamp, Marcel. Manual of Instructions for Étant Donnés: 1º La Chute D'eau 2º Le Gaz D'éclairage... Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1987). It was not revealed to the public until July of 1969, (several months after Duchamp's death), when it was permanently installed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. No photographs of the interior of the piece or of the notebook of instructions were allowed to be published by the museum for at least 15 years. The viewer of the piece first steps onto a mat in front of the door, which activates the lights, motor, etc., and then peers through two ‘peepholes’ to view the construction behind the door. The voyeur strains, unsuccessfully, to see the ‘face’ of the eerily realistic nude female form, which lies supine on a bed of twigs, illuminated gas lamp in hand. In the distance, a sparkling waterfall shimmers, backlit by a flickering light, part of a realistically rendered landscape painting on glass.

Model 2 Artists who curate

Andy Warhol: Raiding the Icebox

While Andy Warhol created the ‘Time Capsules’ as both a personal and professional collection, he was also interested in institutional collecting. In 1970 Warhol revolutionized art exhibition practices with ‘Raid the Icebox’. The title of the show was a pun referring to many museums’ cold storage areas; filled with objects the public does not see. Drawing from the collection of the Rhode Island School of Art and Design, Warhol, as artist/curator, created a thoroughly unconventional set of displays. He placed paintings on the floor leaning against walls stacked two and three deep, while shoes were exhibited in mass in a large cabinet meant to be viewed and touched as if in a person’s own closet. This radical form of exhibition broke institutional rules about the display and value of certain objects over others.

In many natural history museums, exhibitions about native or foreign cultures give attention to all kinds of objects, from mundane and utilitarian items to sacred and art objects. Conversely, most western art museums, much like the ‘Cabinets of Curiosities’ from the 16th Century, only show the highest-quality art or the most beautiful examples of "man's creations." Andy Warhol wanted to elevate the lowly objects within the storage of RISD’s art museum to a higher status. A good example of this reversal is Warhol’s installation of lesser-quality Windsor chairs, which were used by the museum as spare parts to mend the better chairs in their collection. Under Warhol’s curation they hung on the walls like master paintings. In the same way, he pulled out the museum’s extensive costume collection and displayed the fashions of culture along with the art. The ‘Time Capsules’ are Warhol’s largest collecting project, in which he saved source material for his work and an enormous record of his own daily life. Warhol began creating his ‘Time Capsule’s in 1974 after relocating his studio. He recognized that cardboard boxes used in the move were an efficient method for dealing with all of his stuff. Warhol selected items from the daily flood of correspondence, magazines, newspapers, gifts, photographs, business records, and material that passed through his hands to put in the open box by his desk. Once the box was full he sealed it with tape, marked it with a date or title, and put it in his archive. Collectively, this material provides a unique view into Warhol’s private world, as well as a broad cultural backdrop illustrating the social and artistic scene during his lifetime. From the early ’70s until his death in 1987, Warhol created 612 finished ‘Time Capsules’.

During this time period he was not only incredibly busy making art, but he was also collecting everything from cookie jars to contemporary art. An obsessive collector, Warhol constantly scoured auction houses, antique stores, and particularly flea markets for new treasures to add to his many collections. Warhol collected Fiestaware, World's Fair memorabilia, Art Deco silver, Native American objects, and folk art. He often acquired large collections as well—Hollywood publicity stills, crime scene photographs, and dental molds. All of these activities reflected his interest in Pop Art and his inspiration: consumer culture.

Andy Warhol’s ‘Time Capsules’ were almost completely unknown until his death in 1987. Although various studio assistants frequently handled the boxes over the years, few people seemed to recognize the enormous mass of material as anything other than ‘Andy’s stuff’. With the opening of The Andy Warhol Museum in 1994, the ‘Time Capsules’ became accessible to curators, scholars, and the general public, revealing new and important information about Warhol’s life and expanding the public’s understanding of his work and practice.