Arguments for an Abstract Space

Mobilizing Theodor Adorno notion of aesthetic distance, “Arguments for an Abstract Space” what happens when artists produce a negative knowledge of the world. Accordingly, Florian Pümhosl’s 35-mm film installation, “Expressive Rhythm,” serves as a case study for artwork that is at once abstract, in its aesthetic approach, while being realist, in its political evocations.

Originally published in Florian Pumhösl: Works in Exhibitions 1993-2012, (Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2013).
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Cover of the magazine, “USSR in Construction,” 1933.

By Juli Carson


The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image that flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again…For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably. (The good tidings that the historian of the past brings with throbbing heart may be lost in a void the very moment he opens his mouth.)

Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, 1940

Art is the negative knowledge of the actual world. In analogy to a current philosophical phrase we might speak of the ‘aesthetic distance’ from existence: only by virtue of this distance, and not by denying its existence, can the work of art become both work and art and valid consciousness.

Theodor Adorno, Reconciliation under Duress, 1959

I remember the scene. It was a semi-public art seminar held in New York City, circa 1995. My mentor at the time – an international expert in both the Frankfurt School and the neo-avant-garde – was lecturing. During the discussion period, he made a declaration concerning which theoretical rubric a critical art practice should follow: “Benjamin or Adorno,” he proclaimed, “You can’t have both. You have to choose.” My immediate reaction was: No, that’s way too schematic. Certainly, the ontological terms put forth by the Frankfurt School have been ameliorated by subsequent debates put forth by the post-structuralists. And, yet, I completely understood the reasoning behind his avant-gardist axiom of either/or. Scholars of my generation had been schooled on it; and from it, dichotomies of contemporary practice were derived: Hans Haacke or Robert Ryman, Sherrie Levine or Agnes Martin. True, either term in the binary set was based upon legitimate philosophic principles. But, from my mentor’s perspective, they were distinct schools of thought – political appropriation or formalist abstraction – two methods delivering conflicting worldviews on what constitutes critical aesthetics. In their most reductive forms, one method – Benjamin’s – was historicist and populist, the other – Adorno’s – was abstract and avant-garde. The former privileged the serial mediums of photography innovated by John Heartfield; the latter defended experimental formalism instanced by Arnold Schöenberg. Even more reductive, this dichotomy was foundational to debates over the “political” versus the “abstract” in art, with the attendant connotation that political was synonymous with progressively engaged and abstract with formally disengaged. However, these aesthetic algorithms were belied by the fact that this very dialectic – political commitment versus aesthetic autonomy – was previously deconstructed by Benjamin in his historic address to the Popular Front, later published as “The Author as Producer,” and one that Adorno’s entire treatise on Negative Dialectics was committed to undoing. It seems their respective models were, in fact, different methods leading towards the same end.

Hence my reaction against being told to choose – one or the other – that afternoon in New York City. And so we must begin again – starting with the question of abstraction, a proposition that will lead us to the question of a filmic complex in art. What follows is not an attempt to reconcile or conflate Adorno and Benjamin’s distinct models but rather my argument for reviving and combining aspects of each as a means of returning to modernism’s unfinished business.

Abstract operations

The most frequently cited line from Adorno’s “Commitment” essay – “I have no wish to soften the saying that to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric; it expresses in negative form the impulse which inspires [politically] committed literature” – is legendary.[1] Today, among many artists and art historians, this genre – lyric poetry – has been generically conflated with non-political art, or even just plain old “art.” But Adorno was making a different point – that the didactic, figurative representation of the world’s atrocities, an approach championed by Jean-Paul Sartre in his essay “What is Literature,” is merely a dialectical reversal of the emotive work of art, instanced by lyric poetry, which began with the 19th Century Romantics.

Adorno suspends this dialectic through his less cited psychoanalytic axiom against committed art: “The so-called artistic representation of the sheer physical pain of people beaten to the ground by rifle-butts contains, however remotely, the power to elicit enjoyment out of it. The moral of this art, not to forget for a single instant, slithers into the abyss of its opposite.”[2] To be clear, what Adorno opposed was the claim – made even more explicitly in his debate with Georg Lukacs – that an artwork was politically committed because it was realist. Against realism and didacticism, Adorno argued for a type of “aesthetic distance,” a vantage point from which artists would acknowledge the a priori entanglement between real world politics and formalist aesthetics. From this perspective an artist could wage a critique of real events as a negative knowledge of the world.[3] For Adorno, this space of negative knowledge is the space of art’s critical contradiction, denoting as it does that which exists between the real-world object reconciled into the subject of art and the actual un-reconciled object left in the real world. Such a position of aesthetic distance refuses to situate an artwork discretely within either aesthetics or the real world. Rather, the formal art event vis-à-vis the world is – at the same time – an event in the world.

It should be clear that Adorno’s concept of aesthetic distance is quite different from Clement Greenberg’s call for an art for art’s sake. For Greenberg, abstraction was an open avowal of neo-Kantian teleology, whereupon the march towards aesthetic purity – developing out of the past without gap or break – entailed a transcendence of real-world synthetic propositions toward establishing a self-critical tendency within art itself. For Adorno, the avant-garde existed in the space of contraction between what we perceive as objective exteriority and subjective interiority, while, for Greenberg, the political world fell squarely on one side of the divide and aesthetics on the other. In this way, it was Greenberg’s position, not Adorno’s, that initiated a clean dialectical reversal of Sartre’s argument. And, as is the case with all dialectical reversals, within the Greenbergian vs. Sartrean paradigm, the polemical terms – aesthetics vs. politics – are left in their place.

That said, Greenberg and Adorno did have something in common completely aside from the art-for-art’s-sake debate: the idea that abstraction is an operation rather than a picture. For Greenberg, abstraction in modernist painting wasn’t achieved through non-figurative terms alone, as was the case with Art Informal. Rather, abstraction was achieved through the reduction of an artwork to the materialist “operations peculiar to itself.” For abstract painting, this reductive process entailed making surface, paint, shape and the flatness of a work its “subject matter.” When the viewer gleaned the transcendent “aesthetic fact” of this operation, he/she grasped the work as a whole, arriving at the painting’s “content.” This is what Greenberg meant when he said the avant-garde gives us “cause” while kitsch gives us “effect.” With abstract painting, the viewer does the intellectual work of deriving meaning from the process of abstraction, unlike the process inherent in viewing realist or other figurative styles of painting (i.e. kitsch) that, according to him, served up their content on a platter for passive consumption.

For Adorno, autonomous art was operational as well, although the process was explicitly political and psychoanalytic, a dual imperative ignored by Greenberg. “The uncompromising radicalism of [autonomous art], the very features defamed as formalism,” Adorno argued, “give them a terrifying power, absent from helpless poems to the victims of our time.”[4] The painful nature of Schönberg’s compositions – those derived from his dissonant 12-tone theory – are most critical when they “prevent people from repressing from memory what they at all costs want to repress,” but they are not so critical when the composition’s narration turns “suffering into images,” as in Schönberg’s Survivor of Warsaw of 1947.[5] Again, for Adorno, as with Greenberg, the critical operation of abstraction takes place on the side of reception. However, for autonomous art, the operation entails a radical act of desublimation – a return of the repressed – in support of historical consciousness against the trans-historical impulse encoding Greenberg’s sublimatory branch of High Modernism.

These are the remains of modernist abstraction that I wish to pursue: Adorno’s political, psychoanalytic operation, which entails doing work on the viewer’s consciousness; and Greenberg’s philosophical, aesthetic operation, which entails doing work on the medium itself. Taken together, Adorno and Greenberg’s respective propositions – uncoupled from the polemical, ontological intentions of the authors – can be redirected towards the end-game of reinventing the serial “medium” of film.

I borrow the word “reinventing” from Rosalind Krauss, who counter-intuitively evokes Walter Benjamin to consider the material conditions of photography, conditions she sees as inherently tied to memory:

The medium in question here is not any of the traditional media – painting, sculpture, drawing, architecture – that include photography…Rather, it concerns the idea of a medium as such, a medium as a set of conventions derived from (but not identical with) the material conditions of a given technical support…that can be both projective and mnemonic.[6]

In A Voyage on the North Sea, Krauss further qualifies her revival of the word medium: “If I have decided in the end to retain the word…it is because for all the misunderstandings and abuses attached to it, this is the term that opens onto the discursive field that I want to address.”[7] Like Adorno, Krauss puts aside over-determined historical debates about form – the art-for-art’s-sake battle – to consider instead how discursivity (language) might be locked into a serial medium’s operation, a semiotic operation unpacked by the discerning viewer. Along these lines, Krauss arrives at a reinvented medium conceived after the lessons of conceptual art, institutional critique and psychoanalysis that constitute her own legacy in the triangulation with Adorno and Greenberg that I’ve just sketched out.

To expound upon her notion of reinvention, Krauss looks to Marcel Broodthaers who, in parting company with the structuralist films pioneered by Jonas Mekas at the Anthology Film Archives in New York City during the 60s and 70s, returned “retrogressively” to “the promesse de bonheur enfolded in cinema’s beginnings.”[8] For it was there, rather than in Mekas’s model, that a filmic complex could deconstruct the residual ontological claims made for the medium by the structuralists.[9] In Broodthaer’s hands, the “filmic apparatus presents us with a medium whose specificity is to be found in its conditions as self-differing…[underscoring] its inextricable relation between simultaneity and sequence, its layering of sound or text over image.”[10] As a layered system of signs that simultaneously posits presence and absence, Broodthaer’s films initiated a relentless temporal deferral of the image’s ontological “being,” a turn that ushers in what Jacques Derrida’s called différance – that “movement according to which language, or any code, any system of referral in general, is constituted ‘historically’ as a weave of differences.”[11] And with this notion of a self-differing subject – a code endlessly deferred within the medium of film – a different Walter Benjamin returns.

A filmic complex

“The past can be seized only as an image that flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again,” Benjamin observed in 1940.[12] It’s an aphorism that resonates with Jean-Luc Godard’s most oft-quoted dictum, stated some twenty years later, that: “Photography is Truth. Cinema is truth 24 times a second.” The past (the event) that manages to rise above the cacophony of historical facts does so by catching our attention as being present in the now, in much the same way that any element (the truth) of an event is represented in a photograph when patterns of light bounce off an object and are captured onto a piece of film, providing incontrovertible proof that both the object and the photographer were there when it happened.

And yet, contrary to cinematic legend, this utterance – Cinema is truth 24 times a second – was actually made by “Bruno Forestier,” the protagonist in Godard’s second film Le Petit Soldat. Posing as a photographer, Bruno makes this declaration while trying to capture the object of his desire, to fix it as an image, an ideal truth, for all time. But the object of Bruno’s camera lens – the woman he desires – tenaciously keeps moving, pacing, changing so that every frame he captures is undone by the next. The truth flashes up the instant Bruno recognizes the cause of his desire in the woman, and, just as fast, once the moment of this truth is transformed into her image, it is never seen again. In this mise-en-scène, which Godard stages before his camera as a stand-in for his own desire for Anna Karina, the actress posing for “Bruno,” truth is doubly fleeting, even – and especially when – it is “present” 24 times a second. This paradoxical operation, this ontological deconstruction, was Godard’s means of historical abstraction, a method he laid down in this early work to be more consciously actualized in his activist films from 1968 and onwards. Which brings us to the film’s geopolitics.

Shot in 1960, Le Petit Soldat was banned by French censors until 1963 not because of the film’s controversial subject matter – the Algerian War of Independence – but because of Godard’s controversial handling of the film’s subject matter. Specifically, the controversy erupted over his banal depiction of torture and his ambivalent representation of terrorism and espionage on the part of both the Right and the Left. In the scene responsible for the film’s censorship, Bruno – a deserter working for French intelligence in Switzerland – recalls his torture by the FLN (National Liberation Front) in detached pragmatic detail, explaining: “Torture is so monotonous it’s difficult to talk about it.” Alternately burned, water-boarded and electrocuted, Bruno is at once passive – “I forced myself not to yell and soon stopped struggling” – and inexplicably non-compliant – “Why didn’t I give up the phone number? I can’t recall.” Since Godard directs his actors to show little to no expression, this banal mise-en-scène amounts to a series of “real life” intelligence demonstrations based upon the fictional protagonist’s descriptive recollections of the event at hand. For instance, in the voice-over accompanying Bruno’s water-boarding, it is not the victim’s screams or the torturer’s demands that are heard. Rather, it’s Bruno’s deadpan recollection that: “Air doesn’t penetrate cloth soaked in water. It’s impossible to breathe.”

Mechanically abstracted as such, the repressed that returns here – for the censors as well as the audience – evokes Hannah Arendt’s infamous “banality of evil,” a term she coined in her coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trials in Jerusalem in 1962. Be it Arendt’s description of the trial or Godard’s handling of his subject matter, the banal commodification of torture/terrorism – not to mention the equivalency of political opponents who employ it – is underscored in both instances. In Le Petite Soldat, torture is something that anyone could do, given the right conditioning or (in Arendt’s terms) should there be a refusal to think. In Godard’s case, torture is something the characters work into their quotidian schedule of chores – laundry on Wednesday, torture on Thursday. Hence the ordinariness of the surroundings for Bruno’s torture sessions – a middle-class apartment where his captors alternately torture him, read books, smoke cigarettes, shuffle documents, anything to mitigate the monotony of the task at hand.

Through this pragmatic abstraction of the event – this non-spectacular, banalization of violence – the viewer is placed in an unsettling space. For in this process of uncanny abstraction, just as Adorno had maintained with regard to Schönberg’s atonal compositions, something returns that is ordinarily repressed. Godard’s cinematic abstraction operationally redoubles that of the characters’ conflicting political abstractions. He thus pictures, in a fictional way, a very real operation: the unconscious enactment of societal violence occurring the moment we homogenize the monotony of daily life with utopian abstractions (be they colonial or modern), a reality that both the Left and Right tend to repress. Notably, Le Petite Soldat was re-mastered in December 2001, just months after the attacks of September 11, when the American government amplified tactics of “extraordinary rendition”[13] in a so-called defense of world democracy. As Benjamin noted, “The good tidings that the historian of the past brings with throbbing heart may be lost in a void the very moment he opens his mouth.”[14] Had Godard’s little-known film not spoken to the realities of the present, no doubt it would have remained lost, irretrievably, in the hands of Godardian cinephiles.

This is the unfinished business of European/North American colonization that culminated in the performative abstraction of a political narrative in 1960/2001. But what of modernity’s unfinished business that is discursively embedded in Godard’s medium – the filmic apparatus itself? Specifically, what about the legacy of those experimental filmmakers who went further than Godard by aiming to completely liberate the medium from its service to story-telling? Were their efforts merely a continuation of high modernist painting’s transcendentalism, as some critics have maintained?[15] Moreover, if these tactics were revived today, would they continue modernism’s transcendental tendency? To address these questions we must first invert Benjamin’s question of how abstraction is embedded in history to ask how history is embedded in abstraction. Even more specifically, it means addressing the psychic dimensions of temporality that spring forth from film – the 24 frames a second operation – when it’s presented in its most abstract form. In so doing, we move beyond the dialectical configuration of conventional abstraction versus conventional narrative, to a configuration where the narrative of abstraction within the conventions of modernism then and now is explored. Or, as Jacques Lacan might have put it, we move to the fort da (gone there) of historical modernism as the object cause of the contemporary artist’s desire. Fundamentally, this is a question of memory.

Enter the work of Florian Pumhösl.

Memory Traces

I often begin a project by locating a historical starting point. This can be a history of effect, as in the case of architectonic modernizations. It can also be a historical myth like the “origins of abstraction.” Then, very often moments appear, where the attributes and expectations do not correspond to their form.

Florian Pumhösl

Every abstract film by Pumhösl stores a history, just as the medium of film, by its very nature, stores a memory. There’s a material basis of this filmic complex, which I’ll address anamorphically, by way of a detour through the neurological structure of memory.

Neuroscientists used to think memories were like volumes of books on the shelves of a library. One simply recalled the memory and read it, whereupon the truth of an historical event would surface. Recently, neuroscience has shown that memories are rewritten every time they’re associatively recalled through the process of “reconsolidation.” A memory is activated as the result of a synaptic connection between two neurons enabled by protein synthesis – the generative glue of memory. When this protein synthesis is blocked, memories – even the most hardened ones – fail to materialize. This means that instead of recalling a memory that has been stored, we are generating the memory, through protein synthesis, every time the memory is consciously “repeated.” Moreover, since a “new” memory incorporates elements of the associated context from which it was recalled, a memory’s erasure actually generates its recall.[16] This process describes the neuroscience behind what Freud called the “screen memory.” Freud asserts – in response to the question, “Do we have any memories at all from our childhood?” – that we only have memories related to our childhood. Therefore, the nature of childhood memories, the manner in which they suddenly appear and disappear in simultaneous modes of forms, demonstrate that one’s earliest years are never experienced as they were. Rather, these past moments are paradoxically experienced in the present, triggered by related events taking place at the time of a memory’s (present) formation. As Freud puts it, “In these periods of revival, the childhood memories did not, as people are accustomed to say, ‘emerge.’ They were ‘formed’ at that time.”[17]

Pumhösl’s Expressive Rhythm is one such screen memory, acting as a reservoir for the perception consciousness system that Freud analogously described through the operation of the mystic writing pad – an inscription system whereby every trace is simultaneously a moment of reinscription.[18] The mystic writing pad is a child’s toy consisting of a thin sheet of celluloid that covers a thick waxen board. The user writes on the celluloid with a stylus, making a faint indentation in the wax underneath, which, in turn, leaves a dark trace on the celluloid sheet. When the sheet is lifted away from the wax surface, the dark traces disappear and the writing surface is once again blank. However, as the tablet is written upon over and over, these tell-tale traces cease to disappear completely, transforming the mystic writing pad into a palimpsest – a type of manuscript whereupon an original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which some traces of the original remain. This process is similar to the way film operates. The wax tablet is analogous to the exposure of film, which, until it is fixed, can be anything or nothing. The stylus that presses through the celluloid sheet to the wax tablet beneath can thus be likened to this fixing process and further analogous to our perception consciousness system that “selects” memory traces for conscious recall. The film’s final projection before an audience is similar to the moment of our conscious reflection, which, in reality, is a palimpsest of various trace-associations that we bring to the projected image we “remember.”

In form and in content, this is how Pumhösl’s films operate. His Expressive Rhythm began with a repetition, a “lucky find” by Pumhösl – as if by chance – of an abstract painting produced by two different artists in two incongruous moments. In 1943, Alexander Rodchenko – who personified Benjamin’s “Author as Producer” argument in the context of the Soviet avant-garde – returned to painting. In an uncanny historical turn, Rodchenko’s painting – a gestural drip composition titled Expressive Rhythm – anticipated Jackson Pollock’s untitled black and white/number 6 painting of 1951. As art legend has it, the two paintings were produced as a consequence of each artist having “lost it,” albeit for antithetical reasons. For Greenberg, Pollock’s Orientalist calligraphy was the beginning of an unforgiveable relapse into generic figuration, most egregiously realized in 1953. For the Soviets, Rodchenko’s return to gestural painting was little more than a bourgeois indulgence in the kind of abstract “distortions” found in his documentary photography. As morphologically similar as the two paintings were, however, they were inversely opposed in their content, such that, when taken together, they defiantly exist at the center of the avant-garde’s hypothetical “Venn diagram,” that paradoxical moment of overlap between formalist individualism and socialist collectivism, between corporeal expression and cerebral analysis.

But there’s still more to the story. Rodchenko made Expressive Rhythm ten years after he’d seen modernity’s endgame firsthand. In 1931, in an effort to comply with Stalin’s socialist realist mandate and to mitigate accusations of formalist deviation, Rodchenko accepted a commission to photograph the creation of the White Sea Canal for publication in USSR in Construction. Tragically, the 227-kilometer long canal was completed in just 500 days by convicted laborers at the cost some 25,000 lives. And, indeed, Rodchenko made three trips to Karelia to produce the epic propagandistic magazine. However, we must resist psycho-pathologizing Rodchenko as the source of the avant-garde’s truth in 1931. As Lacan asserts “…things must not be taken [solely] at the level at which the subject puts them – in as much as what we are dealing with is precisely this obstacle, this hitch, that we find at every moment.”[19] While in Karelia, Rodchenko also made photographic studies of the frozen Baltic countryside, particularly its trees, which he produced with the same formalist eye that caused the Soviet’s to bristle in regard to Rodchenko’s earlier photographic study of pine trees in the city of Pushkino circa 1927. Hence, this tree motif from Pushkino – its memory trace – was by no means wiped clean by the Karelia photographs, no matter how intently Rodchenko tried reconstituting himself as an authentic Soviet artist in 1931. To the contrary, this obstacle, this hitch insists within the very pages of USSR in Construction. For it is there that the Pushkino trees return through their proxy images from Karelia. And if this automaton image/tactic repeats, like a throbbing heartbeat in Rodchenko’s shifting journey through the avant-garde, it is precisely there (again) that we find the historical starting point of Pumhösl’s film.

The mise-en-scène of Pumhösl’s Expressive Rhythm consists of one film projection and one glass case. The 35-mm film component – eight fixed-frame shots punctuated by four stretches of black leader – begins with what appears to be a black and white still image of a tree, its integrated mesh of leafless branches frozen, literally and figuratively, in time. The image of this and other trees eventually begin to move ever so slightly in the subsequent sequences, while a detournement of Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata (1951) by the contemporary pianist Marino Formenti – who has Schönberged the sonata – functions as the “soundtrack” behind the black leader stretches. Off to the side, a glass case displays the issue of USSR in Construction containing Rodchenko’s contribution, its pages open to the double spread containing the Karelia photographs. Amidst the montage of workers at the canal stands a single majestic tree. As Eric De Bruyn describes it: “What we see is a colorized image of a pine tree, shot from below, its trunk thrusting toward the top right of the page similar to the shot of the pine tree in [Pumhösl’s] Expressive Rhythm.”[20]

The tree’s mirrored image – in the magazine and the film – may be frozen, but it’s hardly stagnant. To the contrary, the psychic complex we bring to the installation, piqued by the coterminous abstract and realist cues Pumhösl provides – structuralist film, polytonal music, nature photography, Soviet propaganda – is the syntax of the screen memory at hand. In this way, Pumhösl’s return to the Rodchenko of 1943 is not a celebration of a revolutionary’s return to gestural painting, nor a political radicalization of the associated painting-to-come by the Pollock of 1951. The frozen tree – Pumhösl’s free-floating signifier – simultaneously evokes, in its filmic abstraction, the gestural paintings of Rodchenko and Pollock and, as such, provides a point of entry to the syntactical structure of the installation. The frozen tree is quite literally a pivot between the trauma of the Soviet avant-garde’s failure (realism) and the collapse of high modernism’s transcendentalist ideal (abstraction). And just as Pumhösl’s frozen/moving image points in two directions – to that which came before (Karelia) and that which comes after (New York City) – it simultaneously recalls and erases, exposes and deflects the utopian intentions made for historical abstraction in film and in painting. This is the rhythm of Pumhösl’s filmic reinscription of the avant-garde, the performative pulse of the historical drive in his work. And if something is fixed here, in the film and in our psyche, it is the invitation for discerning viewers to return to that space between the polemics of the historical avant-garde as a space of productivity. For reinscription is not merely erasure, it is the abstract space of infinite reinvention.


I remember the scene. I was giving a public lecture in Buenos Aires, circa 2011. The subject was Kerry Tribe’s performative installation, H.M., an experimental documentary on the famous case of patient H.M. who, in 1953, had consented to having a portion of his medial temporal lobes excised in order to control his massive epileptic seizures. His short-term and procedural memories were left intact, but he could not commit new events to long-term memory. His consciousness, or what H.M. knew, was reduced solely to his short-term memory. Tribe’s double projection consisted of two synchronized projectors that spooled a single filmstrip between them with a 20-second delay, such that the image (or event) appeared in the left projection and, 20 seconds later, appeared on the right projection, thus placing the viewer in the position of H.M.’s cognitive myopia. Even though we can physically see the dual apparatus – proof that the images are in fact being projected twice – if the first image holds no historical resonance for the viewer, then it would appear as if for the first time when it reappears on the right side.

During the discussion at the end of my lecture, a listener, skeptical that an abstract experimental film could be political, demanded to know why any of this was important. Her urgency made sense. After all, Argentina is, as they say, the land of a thousand military coups. For some Argentines, after the American-backed Dirty War of 1976-1983, with its disappearances and genocide, followed by the complete collapse of their economy in 2001-02, political art is synonymous with realism. But in the end, and especially in that context, there is nothing more political than memory – memory itself is political. By extension, the question is not why memory, with all its abstractions, metalypses and elisions, is political. The question is who remembers what and why? Moreover, what gets repressed? Between abstraction and realism, we can (and should) posit the paradoxical concept of abstract realism for an aesthetic practice that takes cultural memory as both its form and its content. Abstract because it is always already a reconstituted memory, real because this reconstitution derives from our empirical knowledge of the world.

These are the arguments for an abstract space that Florian Pumhösl’s filmworks provoke and engage.

  1. Theodor Adorno, “Commitment,” Aesthetics and Politics: The Key Texts of the Classic Debate within German Marxism, (New York: Verso, 1995), p. 188

  2. Ibid., p. 189.

  3. Adorno, “Reconciliation under Duress,” Aesthetics and Politics, see note 1, p. 160.

  4. Adorno, “Commitment,” see note 1, p. 188.

  5. Ibid., p. 189.

  6. Rosalind E. Krauss, “Reinventing the Medium,” Critical Inquiry, (Winter, 1999), p. 296

  7. Rosalind E. Krauss, “A Voyage on the North Sea.” Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, (London: Thames & Hudson, 1999), p. 7.

  8. Ibid., p. 44.

  9. Peter Wollen, “The Two Avant-Gardes,” Studio International, Nov/Dec, 1975. Wollen argues that the absence of a filmic avant-garde of the Godard type limited the New America Cinema, narrowed its horizons and tied “to the future of the other visual arts,” i.e. to High Modernist painting that focused upon a medium’s material base towards transcendental, non-political, ends.

  10. Krauss, see note 7, pp. 44-45.

  11. Jacques Derrida, Différance, in Peggy Kamuf, ed., A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), p. 65.

  12. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, (New York: Schocken Books, 1985), p. 255.

  13. “Extraordinary rendition” is a term used to describe the apprehension and extrajudicial transfer of a person from one country to another. Critics have synonymously used the term “torture by proxy” to describe situations in which the U.S. has purportedly transferred suspected terrorists to countries known to employ harsh interrogation techniques that may rise to the level of torture.

  14. Walter Benjamin, see note 12.

  15. I am again referring to Wollen’s critique, see note 9.

  16. Steven Johnson, “The Science of Eternal Sunshine,” Slate Magazine, March 22, 2004.

  17. Sigmund Freud, “Screen Memories,” Standard Edition 3:303-322, p. 69.

  18. Sigmund Freud, “Note on the ‘Mystic Writing Pad’,” Collected Papers, vol. 5, (New York, Basic Books, 1959), pp. 175-180.

  19. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI, Alain Sheridan, trans., (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998), p. 54.

  20. Eric De Bruyn “Social Choreographies,” in Florian Pumhösl 678, (Köln, Walter Koning Press, 2011), p. 100.