Kristine Stiles – Selected Comments

Kristine Stiles, Ph.D. ‘Selected Comments on Destruction Art’ – Book for Unstable Media(1992)

Destruction art bears witness to the tenuous conditionality of survival; it is the visual discourse of the survivor. It is the only attempt in the visual arts to grapple seriously with the technology and psychodynamics of actual and virtual extinction, one of the few cultural practices to redress the general absence of discussion about destruction in society. 1

Destruction art is interdisciplinary and multinational, combining media and subject matter. Destruction art addresses the phenomenology and epistemology of destruction and must be characterized as a broad, cross-cultural response rather than an historical movement. An attitude, a process and way of proceeding, destruction art is both reactionary and responsive; it is not an aesthetic, nor a method, nor a technique. Destruction art is an ethical position comprised of diverse practices that investigate the engulfments of terminal culture. I use the term destruction art merely as an identificatory device to signify the site where social, aesthetic, and political interrelationships and practices collude in the question of survival. This term is a concise index of a wide anthropological field, whereas the phrase ‘destruction-in-art’ emphasizes the processes that determine its practices within the institutions of art. In five manifestos written between November 1959 and July 1964, Gustav Metzger, a Polish Jew, laid out the basis for ‘Auto-Destructive-Art’ which is also the foundation of destruction art. 2

Metzger intended ‘Auto-Destructive-Art‘ to be principally realized in public monuments to be erected on civic sites. These structures would contain complex technological and electronic internal devices that would cause the structure to implode and self-destruct within a period of twenty seconds to twenty years. Site-sensitive and site-specific, interdisciplinary and requiring collaboration between scientists and artists, these works would be context/determined and, therefore, social, collective, and collaborative. Industrial and machine made, the structures would also be technical representations of the intrinsic interdependence of the processes of natural decay and disintegration and cultural, particularly urban, crisis. ‘Auto- Destructive-Art’ condensed a vast experiential and technological territory of destruction and its concomitant survivalist ethos into a manageable representation. The temporal duration of ‘Auto-Destruction-Art’ would operate both as a representation and a presentation, an image and an enactment of effacement. As the rematerialization of memory in its original destructive form, the absent presence of the felt past would return as known experience, no longer ‘there’ but transformed into a new state ‘here’. Destruction art in its first manifestation of ‘Auto-Destructive-Art’ is the constant public and social reminder of destruction, its agents, processes, and results.

Precisely twenty years after Metzger was sent to England in 1939 at the age of 12, when his family was arrested by the Gestapo in Nuremburg, he formulated his theory. Twenty seconds, then, is a temporal analog for the seconds it took to destroy his personal world by killing his family; twenty years, the two decades of gestation in his own auto-transformation. Temporality in destruction art is the index of duration that confronts consciousness with the cycle of construction and destruction manifest in cultural artifacts and technological objects as well as in nature. This temporality reinscribes the psyche of the social body with a memory of the finite which must function as an affective agent in the reaggregation of a survivalist consciousness. Metzger’s life-experience reflects the geo-politics of the disappeared which Paul Virilio has identified as one at the conditions of ‘Pure War’: ” Disappearance of place and individual, refusal of citizenship, of rights, of habeas corpus, etc., ‘is spreading all over the world. It’s easier to make people disappear one by one, ten by ten or thousand by thousand than to shut millions up into camps, as they did in Nazi Germany. Even if Gulags and concentration camps still exist and they do, alas disappearance is our future.” 3

‘Pure War’ in this sense refers to the technical and psychological readiness and ubiquity of war that currently shapes political as well as social relationships, and that contributes to the epistemo-technical, a way of knowing and being-in-the-world based in the technology of war. 4

“Pure War is neither peace nor war,” Virilio claims, “nor is it, as was believed, ‘absolute’ or ‘total’ war, but rather, the military procedure itself which infects us with its ordinary durability.” 5 Military socialism is the term Virillo uses to describe the ways in which the military sustains and perpetuates itself by making continual war on its own civilian populations.
The concrete evidence of corporeal existence in the carnage of bombed cities and towns with dead bodies to be buried or burned, which resulted from past wars, no longer exists since the crematoria and thermonuclear vaporization obliterate all reckoning with death and destruction. The elisions of language contribute to this destruction. Destruction art opposes all abstractions that unwittingly perpetuate the destructive epistemology of western culture so thoroughly perfected in the policies, technologies, and languages of defense analysts who use such words as “smart bombs,” “friendly fire,” “clean bombs,” and “collateral damage” to talk of death. Indeed, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell’s gruesome description of the mission of the United States military in the 1991 Iraqi war at least made destruction experientially and conceptually real. He said: “We are going to go in, cut them off, and kill them.” It is the denaturing and abstraction of the actual experience of destruction that is the triumph of the technology of that destruction. In this situation, great care must be exercised to prevent theoretical abstractions from becoming part of the suppression of actual experience that culminates in the denial of identity altogether. Such denials conspire in the destruction of bodies and are the unforgivable consequence of mistaking the map for the territory. They are the decidable danger that resides in interpretations of Derrida’s concept of ‘difference’ that many have argued requires a “différence/deferment from/of any decidable statement of the concept of an identity or difference.” 6

The trust of destruction art is the survivability of the body, the very materiality of existence. In this sense, no group of artists has been as explicit as Survival Research Laboratories who have clearly stated the terms of their investigation and practice. Indeed, materiality is the business of art. Representation and observation, the visual conditions of materiality, are the residual features of the first act of the artist which is to recover the conditionality of materiality. This is why that, without eyes, art may still exist for those without sight. When faced with extinction, the artist must, if he/she takes responsibility for his/her trust, put art in the service of survival. This does not imply that all art must assume the task of destruction art, but it does mean that art has a particular social function which requires an ethical position on the question of survival, no matter what formal resolution that work finally assumes. In this sense, I believe destruction art recovers the social force of art from instrumental reason and the economies of late capitalism. For destruction art constantly reinscribes the profound significance of the survival of the body in the opposition it deconstructs. The task of destruction art includes the deconstruction of the double character and indeterminacy of meaning in the binary division of creation/destruction and the elucidation of the signifying conditions of destruction. In this sense, the project of destruction art resembles the deconstructionist theory with which it emerged simultaneously but independently in the early 1960s. It is significant that Derrida’s De Ia Grammatologie (1967) was published a year after Metzger brought the various tendencies of destruction art together as a cohesive discourse and representation in the Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS) in 1966. 7

DIAS was the temporary organization for a multicultural, multidisciplinary international event which attracted nearly one hundred artists and poets (most of whom were the pioneers of Happenings and Concrete Poetry) from fifteen countries in Eastern and Western Europe, the United States, South America, and Japan. Several psychologists also attended. DIAS was important in identifying artists internationally who pioneered destruction art. Documentation and destruction sound tapes were sent to DIAS by the Argentine painter Kenneth Kemble who had assembled a group of poets and painters (Luis Alberto Wells, Silvia Torras, Jorge Roiger, and Jorge Lopez Anaya), in 1961, for an exhibition he titled Arte Destructivo which took place at the Galeria Lirolay in Buenos Aires. Shortly after this exhibition, the group dissolved and it was not until DIAS that this work was recovered. For various accounts of DIAS events and related material, see my unpublished doctoral dissertation The Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS): The Radical Cultural Project of Event-Structured Art, University of California, Berkeley, 1987. See also my following essays: Synopsis of The Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS) and Its Theoretical Significance, in TheAct 1:2 (Spring 1987): pp. 22-31; Sticks and Stones: The Destruction in Art Symposium, Arts 65:5 (January 1989): pp. 54-60; and Readings: Performance and Its Objects, Arts 65:3 (November 1990): pp. 35-47.

Metzger’s stated aim in organizing DIAS was to create an interdisciplinary forum for an inquiry into the relationship of destruction in art and society. Derrida’s parallel objective was to “seek a new investigation of responsibility, an investigation which questions the codes inherited from ethics and politics” in the “political and institutional structures that make possible and govern our practices.” 8

DIAS was also the model for a number of subsequent exhibitions at which artists learned to expand the languages of destruction art. 9
However, only Metzger, Rafael Montanez Ortiz, and Wolf Vostell ever specifically identified their work with the terminology of destruction and systematically explored destruction as the principle focus of their work. 10 Ortiz‘s performance work is particularly important in terms of the influence it had on Arthur Janov’s formulation of ‘primal scream’ psychotherapy. See Arthur Janov, The Primal Scream: Primal Therapy: The Cure for Neurosis (New York: A Delta Book, 1970): pp. 9-11. Wolf Vostell developed his practice of décoll/age during the late 1950s after having noticed the term in Le Figaro in 1954, when it was used to describe the simultaneous take off and crash of an airliner. His syllabic division of the word décollage inverts the constructive process of collage and deconstructs the binary creation/destruction into semiotic units which transform in time: ‘dé’ and ‘coll’ name oppositions, while ‘age’ refers (in French) to temporality. Vostell’s sensitivity to the semiotic range of the French term decollage owes something to the context in which such poet-painters as Raymond Hams, Jacques Villéglé, and Françoise Dufrêne in Paris, and Mimmo Rotella, in Italy, developed l’affiche lacerée. In this regard, one of the key psychoanalytic dimensions of destruction art is the charged emotional reaction to the anger and frustration these three experienced as the disempowered ‘other’ within the Western male culture to which they belonged and which they theoretically controlled. This sense of being ‘out-of-control’ in part, accounts for the violence of their rejection of the deceptive conventions of Western ‘creation’ and the repressive sublimations it demands. The range of their destructions and the objects or human actions upon which they were visited, however problematic, must be characterized as parody, a profound disgust and rejection of the patriarchal models of discipline, punishment, violence, and authoritarianism so accurately theorized by Klaus Theweleit. 11

Some of these works include the menacing explosives spectacles staged by Ivor Davies, John Latham and others in the 1960s or Survival Research Laboratories in the 1980s; the burned and exploded books, paintings, and musical objects produced by John Latham, Gustav Metzger, Yoko Ono, Bernard Aubertain, Milan Knizak, Rafael Ortiz, Nam June Paik, Joseph Beuys, Robin Page, Jean Tinguely, Niki de Saint Phalle, Anna Lockwood, Arman, and many others; the ‘Archaeological Finds’ -destroyed furniture created by Rafael Ortiz from 1959-1965; destroyed objects of all variety by Metzger, Vostell, Kenneth Kemble, Bruce Conner, and many others; and psycho-physical performances by Hermann Nitsch, Otto MuhI, Gunter Brus, Jean-Jacques Lebel, Rafael Ortiz, Yoko Ono, Valie Export, Gina Pane, Lynn Hershman, Karen Finley and dozens of other artists not generally associated with destruction art.

In destruction art, the body – actual or extended in mechanical robots – is the principle territory for the demonstration of destruction and survival in both men and womens productions. While men have explored the relationship of that body to the objects and technologies of destruction and to the assertion and recuperation of identity, women have regularly confined their investigations to the reconstruction of identity in the decentered Self and, thus, intensify a gendered investigation of the material universe of bodily pain. In destruction art artists and viewers cooperate both to produce and to witness destruction. When this occurs, art becomes a ground upon which human beings intervene in the imagined neutrality between subjects and objects which is the territory of destruction. In this territory the pain of destruction may be represented and renegotiated. Elaine Scarry has argued that “pain does not simply resist language,” it “actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned.” 12 She continues: “Because the person in pain is ordinarily so bereft of the resources of speech, it is not surprising that the language of pain should sometimes be brought into being by those who are not themselves in pain but who speak on behalf of those who are. (This is how) this most radically private of experiences begins to enter the realm of public discourse.” 13

In 1962, Ono wrote ‘Conversation Piece’ a score for an action requiring the narration of pain.
Her score reads:
Bandage any part of your body.
If people ask about it, make a story and tell.
If people do not ask about it, draw their attention to it and tell.

If people forget about it, remind them of it and keep telling.
Do not talk about anything else. 14

Invented and bandaged wounds articulate psycho-physical pain. This impulse to narrate suffering, to describe the unspeakable conditions of interior life is central to finding a voice through and by which to repossess and recover a sense of the concreteness of personal experience. More urgent is the need to communicate the auto-constructed reality to someone else – to materialize it. Western culture needs subjects to bear witness to the contents of survival and the historical bodies upon which the text of destruction has been inscribed.
The body in destruction art bears such witness and thereby offers a paradigm for a ‘resisting body’ -that private, complex, signifying system of the Self, a person who acts both on behalf of the individual and the social body. In this sense, the individual body, the body of practices I am calling destruction art, and the social body have a symbiotic interconnection, in that individual and collective bodies are also events in the history of society.

I have often argued that the primary communicating codes of the visual arts were transformed in the presentation of the body. Briefly restated, when the body becomes the material support, subject, and content of art it holds the possibility to shift the determined and fixed relations demanded by the prior objective status of art into an interplay of subjectivities established and transmitted in body gestures, systems, and relations. In addition to the traditional metaphorical communicating mechanisms of the visual arts, such changes in the aesthetic sign supplied a metonymic and synecdotal means of connection, projection, continuation, and contigency. The private body was utilized as formal material, subject matter, and content, into which the experiences and institutions of the body politic were collapsed. I want to suggest that in these terms, the body holds the possibility of becoming both an aesthetic and a social sign that also commutes political power. Such embodiment holds the potential to reconnect experience to the objects of that experience and thereby to intervene in the destructive practices, institutions, and technologies threatening extinction. The urgent need to dissolve overdetermined rigid structures and to construct elastic social systems is evident, although constantly undermined by fixed social identities.

The unprecedented achievement of the body as an active agent in art has been to visualize the perpetually shifting, but mutually identifiable relations of power and need within the exchange of subject/object relations. This shift from the conventions of representation to those of presentation may effect a reduction in the alienation between subjects and objects by confronting individuals with their mutual roles as performing and observing subjects. This reduction, however, can never be resolved but, rather, must be constantly renegotiated on the shifting territories of power which continually redetermine subject relations. The performing body underscores the desperate need for negotiation in the question of the survival of destruction. In this way, destruction art performs its radical function in larger social formations. For, in order to recover the content of destruction which includes death, trauma, and pain, its signifying agent must be both representationally symbolic and presentationally contingent. Western society and its most compelling aesthetic productions continue to perpetuate the ethos of destruction. But art that once reflected, mirrored, and passively represented the abstract conventions and patterns of knowledge, now actively presents the literal embodiment of psychical wounds, urban bedlam, and militarized consciousness at the crisis core of terminal culture.

Destruction art communicates the visual knowledge that may recuperate the materiality of life from the violent, discontinuous destructions which imperil survival. The body may be a tool in the techne of survival and may function as a transit between agency and process, language, experience, and their objects to close the lesion between techne and logia (word, speech, or knowledge) that has inhered in the modern concept of technology. Just as destruction art is the image of resistance in the form of an event, it is also an important means to survival that must be continuously explored.

1. For an important exception to this observation, see the writings of Robert Jay Liftonespecially ‘The Future of Immortality and Other Essays for a Nuclear Age’ (New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1987). Lifton has observed that in working on the problem of mass psychological trauma he came to a terrible but “essentially accurate, rule of thumb: the more significant an event, the less likely it is to be studied.” (p. 32) Bruno Bettelheim observed a similar phenomenon in his own investigations on the topic of violence when, in a public lecture I heard in San Francis co in 1982, he noted that violence as a category of investigation remained largely absent from philosophical dictionaries. My own study of destruction confirms Bettelheims and Litton’s observations. For the category ‘destruction’ is absent from most philosophical dictionaries and does not even appear in Raymond Williams key words with such entries as alienation, family, technology, and violence. See Williams’ revised edition of Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983).

2. See Gustav Metzger’s Auto-Destructive Art: Metzger at AA (London, October, 1965).

This publication is part of the collection of the Archiv Sohm, Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart. The text contains all of Metzger’s manifestos: ‘Auto-Destructive Art’ 4 November 1959; Manifesto Auto-Destructive Art, 10 March 1960; Auto-Destructive Art ‘Machine Art’ Auto-Creative Art, 23 June 1961; MANIFESTO WORLD, 7 October 1962; and On random activity in material/transforming works of art, 30 July 1964. Metzger prepared the publication as an expanded version of a talk he gave at the Architectural Association, 24 February 1965 which he published in June 1965. In this document Metzger develops his ‘aesthetic of revulsion’ (p. 13) and places ‘Auto-Destructive Art’ in the context of “anxiety, despair, nihilism, alienation” which are “not only connected with psychology, religion, social systems, but with a profound awareness of failure on the biological plane.” (p. 22)

3. Paul Virilio and Sylvere Lotringer Pure War. trans., Mark Polizzotti (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983): p. 137.

4. Ibid., p. 21.

5. Paul Virillo, Popular Defense & Ecological Struggles, trans., Mark Polizzotti (New York: Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents Series, 1990): p. 35. Originally published as Dé fense populaire et Luttes écologiques, Paris: Edition Galilée, Paris, 1978.

6.For example, see Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Displacement and the Discourse of Woman’ in Displacement: Derrida and After, ed., Mark Krupnick (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983: p. 184,169-95.)

7. See Jacques Derrida De Ia grammatologie (Paris: Minuit, 1967).

8. Jacques Derrida, ‘The Conflict of Faculties’ in Languages of Knowledge and of Inquiry ed., Michael Riffaterre (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982) as quot ed in Jonathan Culler On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (Ithica, New York: Cornell University Press, 1982): p. 156.

9. Among these exhibitions and events are DIAS Preview, March 1968, a series of events that anticipated DIAS: U.S.A., an exhibition organized by Rafael Ortiz and Jon Hendricks. They cancelled this exhibition in mourning over and out of respect for the murdered Martin Luther King. Ortiz, Hendricks, and Jean Toche together founded GAAG: The Guerrilla Art Action Group in 1969. It was a direct outgrowth of destruction art activities. See Jon Hendricks and Jean Toche, GAAG: The Guerrilla Art Action Group 1969-1 976, A Selection (New York: Printed Matter, Inc., 1978). Destruction Art, took place at Finch College Museum, New York, 1968. For further information, see also my essay and extensive annotated bibliography in Rafael Montanez Ortiz: Years of the Warrior 1960 ‘Years of the Psyche 1988 (New York. El Museo del Barrio, 1988).

10. In his Destructivism: A Manifesto, 1962, Ortiz wrote: “(The) destroyers, materialists, and sensualists dealing with process directly … are destructivists and … understand the desperate need to retain unconscious integrity … The artist’s sense of destruction will no longer be turned inward in fear. The art that utilizes the destructive processes will purge, for as it gives death, so it will give to life.” This manifesto appears in my catalogue Rafael Montanez Ortiz: Years of the Warrior 1960 Years of the Psyche, 1988 (New York: El Museo del Barrio, 1988): p. 52.

11. See Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies. Volume 2: Male Bodies: Psychoanalyzing the White Terror, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989). Originally published as Männerphantasien, Volume 2. Männerkörper: Zur Psychoanalyse des weissen Terrors, Verlag Roter Stern, 1978.

12. Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press 1985) p. 4.

13. Ibid: p.6.

14. Yoko Ono, Grapefruit 2nd Edition, with an Introduction by John Lennon (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970): n.p. Originally published in Tokyo by Wunternaum Press, 1964.

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