Two Walls: 1989

“Two Walls,” takes Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc” – and subsequent scandalous destruction – as a springboard to consider how modernist notions of site-specificity morphs have morphed into a post-modern one. In the latter view, physical and discursive sites are not opposed but imbricated, with each being the product/producer of the other. Accordingly, “Two Walls” posits an aligned contemporary art practice, one that further employs a psychoanalytic notion of site as a basis for historical consciousness and critique.

Originally published in Surface Tension, eds. Brandon Labelle, et. al., (Los Angeles: Errant Bodies Press, 2003).
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Dismantling of Tilted Arc, Federal Plaza, New York, March 15, 1989

By Juli Carson

I don’t make portable objects; I don’t make works that can be relocated or site adjusted. I make works that deal with the environmental components of given places…As [the] phrase implies, site-specific sculpture is one conceived and created in relation to the particular conditions of a specific site, and only to those conditions. To remove Tilted Arc, therefore, is to destroy it.

Richard Serra, Statement at the hearings to remove Tilted Arc.

Part I: On Site

Tilted Arc, a wall about which we have read so much, one that most of us in fact know only through such readings, is the referential “site” for the following story. In 1985, William Diamond, the New York Regional Administrator for the General Services Administration (GSA), recommended that Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc be removed from the Federal Plaza in Downtown New York City. Four years and several failed appeals later, Tilted Arc was removed, or in Serra’s own words, “destroyed.” Shortly thereafter, in 1991, The Destruction of Tilted Arc: Documents was published by MIT press, officially entering the controversy surrounding the hearings into art historical discourse. Indeed, the hearings were a ready-made for such a book, as scholars, artists, and critics, ranging from Claes Oldenburg, Douglas Crimp, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Rosalind Krauss, Benjamin Buchloh, Annette Michelson, Frank Stella, and Roberta Smith all spoke in defense of Serra’s project.[1]

Since then, the sheer volume of critical writings engendered by the controversy has underscored the nature in which Tilted Arc, in fact, has become a site for “a story that acts as if the site preceeded it,” to borrow Mark Wigley’s phrase to describe other self-proclaimed “site-specific” projects.[2] The book, produced under Serra’s supervision – one that ironically sought to document the manner in which his project was destroyed upon its physical removal from its site – illustrated the manner in which Tilted Arc’s “site-specificity” was always already discursive. The most important contribution of The Destruction of Tilted Arc, therefore, was not the historical record of the work’s physical whereabouts that it purported to preserve. What is more striking is the manner in which the book performatively demonstrates how Tilted Arc’s “presence” is inextricably bound up with the rhetoric from which it was conceived (late modernist notions of site-specificity) and to which it contributed (postmodernist notions of the discursive site). Indeed, there was a destruction of Serra’s Tilted Arc in the works upon the book’s publication. For it wasn’t the physical object destroyed at the hands of those policemen who removed it in the middle of the night. Rather, the “destruction” of Tilted Arc was at Serra’s own hands (as well as his advocates’). For the object destroyed was the very one borne within the modernist dialectic over a work’s physical site-specificity, bound up, as it were, in the logic of transcendence – a dialectic between a work seen to transcend any physical union with its site and a work seen to transcend any physical contradiction with its site. Borne as such, Tilted Arc’s death occurred at the instance that it was discursively bound (and for many, first received) off-site in the pages of Serra’s own book. Which is to say, quite simply, Titled Arc’s raison d’etre ended the moment that it was written.

At the core of Serra’s dilemma is thus the contradiction of presence upon which Jacques Derrida’s entire project is based. What Derrida refers to as that “logos of being” relies upon the difference between a signifier and a signified such that a transcendental signified – pure presence, pure voice – could primordially pre-exist all subsequent signification. And yet, in the very instance of logos being known, it first had to be reiterated, which is to say, it had to be presented as that thing-not-itself. This is what bothered Greek philosophers about writing in the first place: that one would “repeat without knowing” the truth of that very presence they sought to document, such that the “truth” of writing would in fact be non-truth. This same contradiction is what of writing is what Derrida called the “pharmakon,” following Socrates’ fable about the invention of writing as recounted by Plato in the Phaedrus.[3] The fable, as you may remember, tells how Thamus, the King of Egypt, the representative of Ammon, God of all Gods, is offered a pharmakon (a recipe) for memory and wisdom: writing itself. The king or God can thus be seen as the origin of writing’s value, a practice that comes to him from elsewhere. For God as speaker-of-the-word, of course, doesn’t write. And as such, the “God who speaks,” according to Derrida, acts as the Father who treats the pharmakon (given as a gift or remedy) with great suspicion because it simultaneously threatens the value of his presence in the very instance of dutifully recording it.

The God of speech deriding writing is a paternal act, one that accords with the Platonic notion of logos that assigns the power of speech to the paternal position. As such, the Father is not logos itself; rather, the origin of the power of speech (as logos) is always the Father. He thus gives birth to living logos in the form of the son who dutifully wants to record his spoken word. But in the very attempt to record the Father’s spoken word, to make good on it, there is the threat of producing what Derrida calls the “orphaned” text: that piece of writing separated at birth from its Father, whereupon the orphan forever becomes “his own man.” Derrida analogizes the Father/Son/Orphan relationship to the positions of presence, speech, and writing this way:

We can see that the graphic mark is none other than writing separated at birth from the Father at the very moment of inscription. As such, writing stands opposed to living logos, the latter of which is the dutiful purveyor of active speech, maintaining a closer proximity to the Father in order to make a good “return” on his “source of capital.”[4] Logos thus relies on the binaristic tension between speech (operating upon the prohibition of perversion) and writing (the everlasting threat of patricide). For speech purports to remember accurately the word of the Father, while writing inevitably threatens to forget it.

The Son Begets the Father

Who then begets whom, Derrida asks, following the Nietzschian principle of chronological reversal[5] – the Father or the Son? For the Father, as that metaphor for pure presence, can only be conceived after the fact in the form of what he has made to represent him – the Son – even if that Son is the one who unwittingly becomes orphaned in the space of dutifully recording the Father’s word. For simply, how can there be a Father if at first there is already not a Son? In the case of Serra, The Destruction of Tilted Arc ironically spawned a (postmodern) discursive practice that would put under erasure the very notion of presence (in the form of site-specificity) that the book was meant to record and preserve. But isn’t this accidental “birth by negation” consistent with the very terms of Serra’s own project from the start? Which is to say, isn’t Greenberg-the-Father still lurking somewhere in Serra’s (modernist) project, albeit it in oppositional terms? For Serra’s project begets Greenberg’s project in the act of negating him in the first place, inasmuch as the (postmodern) record of Tilted Arc begets Serra’s (modernist) project. As such, is Serra’s defense of Tilted Arc, in the late year of 1989, not a pivotal instance of modernism’s last living logos?

I look to Rosalind Krauss’s well-known essay on site-specificity, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” which lays the structuralist foundation for my assertion here (a foundation too readily dismissed or willfully forgotten in current discourse). Modernist sculpture, the brand with which Serra’s work dialectically engaged, asserted an inherent sitelessness, one that in the hands of Brancusi, for example, made claims to being functionally placeless and self-referential, as base and sculpture were subsumed into a single transportable form. But, as Krauss argues, it was a limited practice, exhausting itself mid-century as the belief in the “positive” self-referentiality of form began to be experienced as pure negativity. “At this point,” Krauss argues, “modernist sculpture appeared as a kind of black hole in the space of consciousness, something whose positive content was increasingly difficult to define, something that was possible to locate only in terms of what it was not.”[6] What it “was not,” of course, was the site itself in which sculpture was posited. As such, sculpture – in positive terms – could only be defined as neither architecture nor landscape.

The nature of modernist thought about form, the idea that something would be defined as that which it is not, involved more than just sculpture. Greenberg made this explicit in his essay “Modernist Painting,” when he definitively associated modernism with “the intensification, almost exacerbation of a self-critical tendency…[whereby] the characteristic methods of a discipline…[would be used] to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.” Each artform, then, “had to determine, through operations peculiar to itself, the effects peculiar and exclusive to itself.” The cost, Greenberg admits, may have been that a given art form would limit its area of competence, but the ends justified the means here, for at the same time “it would make its possession of this area all the more secure.”[7] [my emphasis]

As we know, the discrete instance of an aesthetic form’s coming into being lent itself to a certain belief in the transcendence of experience, for the artwork was not just distinct from other forms in the world, it was distinct from the body of the viewer himself. Such was the backbone of Greenberg’s theorization of the visual field in the guise of a disembodied eye, which Krauss lyrically recalls in her book The Optical Unconscious. Here is her anecdote of what a work must disavow in that moment of presumed transcendence pivoting off the “look”:

And were we to ask Clement Greenberg about his own description of “the look,” the look that art solicits, the look that is the medium of the transactions between viewer and work? The time of that look is important, he claims, because it must be time annihilated. “With many paintings and pieces of sculpture,” he has insisted, “it is as if you had to catch them by surprise in order to grasp them as wholes – their maximum being packed into the instantaneous shock of sight. Whereas if you plant yourself too firmly before looking at a picture and then gaze at it too long you are likely to end by having it merely gaze back at you.

She continues, explaining the body’s intervention in the field of vision, when time is not properly annihilated:

And when time has not been thus suspended…then the trajectory of the gaze that runs between viewer and painting begins to track the dimensions of real time and real space. The viewer discovers that he or she has a body…and that the picture, also embodied, is poorly lit so that its frame casts a distracting shadow over its surface now perceived as glassy with too much varnish. What Clem refers to as “the full meaning of a picture, i.e., its aesthetic fact” drains out of this situation, relocated as it is in the all too real. And the result is that instead of generating an aesthetic fact, the picture, now reified, simply returns the look, merely gazing “blankly” back at you.[8]

It was precisely against this disembodied eye – the eye of the viewer as much as the eye of the work – that an “expanded field” would challenge not only the definition of form but the space of its experiential limitations. Which is to say, should we shift the space of viewing to an embodied perspective, sculpture would no longer be defined itself as that which it is not, (that which “you back up into when you look at a painting,” as Krauss cites Barnett Newman as saying). Rather, sculpture (as a negation of Greenberg’s negation) would possess that which modernist form had adamantly disavowed: the mundane materialist aspects of its physical site. And in doing so, it would only ever be itself in its site.

Here, then, we have a dialectical reversal within the logic of modernist form, one best demonstrated by Robert Morris’s Corner Piece of 1964. If for Greenberg modernist painting discretely possessed its disciplinary area of competence, dialectically, Minimalist sculpture presumed to completely possess the physical site common to the object and beholder with the intention of provoking a subversive intrusion within Greenberg’s transcendent, disembodied field of vision. For the corner of the corner piece, being at once the corner of the gallery, subtracts from us a space in which we stand. Space, wall, floor, and the beholder’s body are now each, in this “expanded field,” one term among others that stand to define the object, an object that we willfully and necessarily recognize as “staring back at us.” It is an effect made even more directly by Morris’s four mirrored cubes of the same period, in which the work literally constitutes itself vis-à-vis the reflection of surrounding space, wall, floor and beholder. [9]

The reader, here, may protest my assertion that there is a convergence between a site-specific artwork permanently located in the world – be it in the form of an earthwork like Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (both of 1970), or Serra’s urban projects – and site-specific artworks like Morris’s four mirrored cubes that are mobile by nature. Yet I contend these projects do have something in common: the assertion of “site” as a transcendental signified, be it permanent or mobile, based upon an essentialist notion of “experience.”[10] It is a concept that will implicate even more intellectually discordant practices in architecture, to which I will now turn.

Within the “internal logic” of sculpture in the expanded field, operating as it did upon a closed structure of oppositional terms, the notion of “site” is still a physical, materialist one (an operation maintained precisely through Minimalism’s dialectical challenge of the modernist assertion of a Cartesian mind/body split). It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that a residual effect of this materialist “anti-modernist” sculpture – a negation of a negation – positively continued the rhetoric of modernist architecture. This rhetoric (to the chagrin of the Minimalist intellectualism) echoed Frank Lloyd Wright’s more romantic notion of site-specificity as providing a heavenly bond between a given structure and its physical environment, about which he swooned to his students at Taliesin West:

…now you are released by way of glass and the cantilever and the sense of space which becomes operative. Now you are related to the landscape…You are as much part of it as the trees, the flowers, the ground…You are now free to become a natural feature of your environment and that, I believe, was intended by our maker.[11]

On the level of intentionality, the citation of Wright’s project in the context of Minimalism constitutes a form of heresy to the proponents of either practice. For, of course, the Minimalists’ intention of fusing sculpture with landscape and architecture was one of critical (or even political) subversion, against the romantic, idyllic intentions of Wright’s conservative site-specificity. Nevertheless, the philosophic terms of such a work’s fusion within its environment are remarkably similar, particularly when we consider the late instances of Minimalism’s project in the hands of artists like Serra, engaged as they were in the ideal of “public works of art,” constituting a social expansion of Krauss’s notion of an expanded field.

During the public hearings surrounding Tilted Arc, the philosophic convergence of these two models – high modernist architecture and late minimalist sculpture – is demonstrated by arguments for and against the project, both of which state their claims in terms of a fusion between project and site. Those against the project evoked high modernist architectural paradigms of site. I am thinking specifically of testimony given by Margo Jacobs, the wife of Robert Allen Jacobs, the latter of whom was one of the architects for the Federal Office Building and International Court of Trade. Jacobs’ argument at the hearings concerned who best occupied the site, the sculpture or the plaza, which is to say, who occupied the site first. She stated: “…the sculpture does not belong in the Federal Plaza because it is hostile both to its environment and hostile to the public, since it acts as a barrier to their free movements. The plaza is both an integral part of the design of the Federal Office Building and Court house and, at the same time, an extension of Foley Square Park” [my emphasis]. She continued by assessing the damage that Tilted Arc enacted on the plaza’s harmonious placement within the site of an idyllic public sphere: “This plaza was not designed to be an empty space, but it was designed as a place for people and for their public assembly. The plaza is a site-specific work of art incorporating a geometric pavement design, now destroyed.”[12]

In tandem with Jacobs’s testimony, compare again Serra’s defense of Tilted Arc positioned against the Modernists in Minimalist terms, all the while dialectically maintaining Modernism’s basic suppositions about site:

The specificity of site-oriented works means that they are conceived for, dependent upon, and inseparable from their locations. The scale, the size, and the placement of sculptural elements result from an analysis of the particular environmental components of a given context…Based on the interdependence of work and site, site-specific works address their context, entering into dialogue with their surroundings. Unlike Modernist works [i.e. those made by Brancusi and others] that give the illusion of being autonomous from their surroundings, and which function critically only in relation to the language of their own medium, site-specific works emphasize the comparison between two separate languages and can therefore use the language of one to criticize the language of the other.[13]

This belief in a closed dialogue between two things – a work and its site – is consistent in both Serra’s and Wright’s defense of their respective projects, regardless of the intellectual divergences of their claims. Each claim hegemonically privileges one side of this dialogue – the position of the speaking subject in the space of the work, who (which) first identifies a site and then enters it. A harmoniously transcendent dialogue is then presumed to take place between artist and site, one unhindered by the possible cacophony of other voices who might contradict the artist’s projection that a site ontologically exists a priori to his engagement with it. A projection, in fact, that represses the manner in which one’s engagement with a site retroactively constitutes that site, stemming from what one subjectively invests as being “there.” What this repression maintains of modernism’s initial belief in transcendence, albeit by negation, is not the artwork’s anti-materialist (or site-less) condition but the belief in an artwork’s unadulterated experience in the form of a dialogic, non-contradictory existence in-situ. And this belief maintains (as much as it is maintained by) classic tautological form, founded (here) upon the logic that a one-to-one dialogue exists solely between two languages because two languages are put into dialogue with each other. But, as we know, the logic of tautologies is that they exist because they say nothing of the world, and since all signification takes place within the world (i.e., all utterances are spoken in the world), tautologies – be they Serra’s or not – can never really show themselves.[14]

In this instance, then, if Serra is the speaking subject, of whom does he really speak? Ostensibly he attempts to speak for himself and the work, but as we see he unwittingly contradicts himself, breaking ranks with his own tautological assertions by speaking instead of Greenberg by negation and Wright by discursive association. He thus begets, again, the Father in the space of Modernism through his very attempt to denounce him/it. For he is still within the snares of his/its logic about site. Serra here is the good son he does not want to be, which we see even more when the “other” speaks back. Not because the other is right, but because the “other” inevitably will speak, even and especially when that other is spoken unwittingly by the author himself, the one who thus revenges himself upon his own closed definition of site-specificity.

That Dangerous Supplement:

What happens when the “other” is something in the space of the expanded field that speaks back? This “other” may be the government in the form of power lines that were installed in the vista of Taliesin West, prompting Wright’s letter campaign to the President in attempt to have them removed. The attempt failed, prompting Wright defiantly to reconfigure Taliesin’s living quarters to face its opposite vista: the blank side of the hill from which it was intended to spring forth. Or the other may be the performative instance of a disharmonious public.[15]

For Tilted Arc, it was the GSA that first spoke back in 1984 when William Diamond pressed for a public hearing to relocate the work. One year later, from March 6 – 8, a hearing was held, at which time 122 people spoke in favor of retaining Tilted Arc and 58 against it. Through this litigation, Tilted Arc became a wall that heterogeneously signified contradictory political and aesthetic ideologies. According to the GSA’s security specialist, Vickie O’Dougherty, who conjured up the specter of a criminal public indexed by the sculpture’s graffiti, combined with its encouragement of loitering and its obstruction of the government’s visual surveillance of the plaza, Tilted Arc was a security hazard.[16] For Harry Watson, an employee of the Bureau of Investigations of the State of New York, Tilted Arc was an index of the government’s wasteful insanity, a “rusted metal wall” for which the government paid 175,000, but which could be sold “to a scrap metal farm for maybe fifty dollars.”[17] And for Shirley Paris, a private citizen, Tilted Arc was, simply, “the Berlin Wall of Foley Square.”[18] A sense of violence being inflicted upon the public (in tandem with the public’s fantasy that the sculpture would further encourage more violence) thus supplanted Krauss’s testimony at the hearings that Tilted Arc “invest[ed] a major portion of its site with a use we must call aesthetic.”[19] Indeed, this was the modernist signified (aesthetic) of which the Arc (turned mere wall) contingently “spoke,” but for which it was not a suitable “representation.”

As appeals failed, Tilted Arc met its final demise in 1989. It is a moment Serra recalls in terms that phantasmatically evoke the trauma of a public execution:

Once my own say in the fate of the sculpture had been finally denied by the federal courts, William Diamond, the regional administrator of the GSA and the man most responsible for the campaign against Tilted Arc, acted immediately to have the sculpture removed. In a sinister all-night session on March 15, overtime work crews labored to dismantle Tilted Arc, brutally sawing and torching the piece. Finally around 4:30 a.m., Tilted Arc was reduced to raw materials, to be carted off and stored in Brooklyn, reportedly pending relocation. “This is a day for the people to rejoice,” said Diamond, “because now the plaza returns rightfully to the people.[20]

The discursive evocation here of the body’s violation in the metaphoric space of the Arc’s “public execution” is unequivocally present in Serra’s account: the denied attempt to stay the inevitable sentence, the subsequent midnight action, the “brutal sawing and torching” of the piece, the reduction to raw material parts, and finally the (phantasmatic) cheering mob. It was the very terms of Minimalism’s embodied essence of production and reception that afforded (if not secured) the inevitably personal violation felt by Serra, whose very presence (by metonymic association) was forcibly reduced to fragmented and discarded parts, shipped off-site and locked away. But what of the other destruction that metonymically took place here, that of the author’s presence/authority behind his own word? For Serra, the execution began at the very moment in which his own say in the fate of the sculpture had been finally denied. And in written defense of this wronged execution, at the heels of the physical body in the sites of the Arc’s production, reception, and destruction, there emerged another body: the corpus of writing as both the executor and progeny of Serra’s own word in (and on) the space of “site-specificity.”

Let’s return again to Plato, intertextually through our reading of Derrida’s “Pharmacy” essay, whereupon we encounter another (even more familiar) wall. Of logos, as the Father or Source, it is impossible to speak directly, no more than it is possible to look directly into the sun. And it is here that Derrida directs us to re-visit Plato’s famous passage from the Republic, in which the following scenario is played out:

Picture men dwelling in a sort of subterranean cavern with a long entrance open to the light on its entire width. Conceive of them as having their legs and necks fettered from childhood, so that they remain in the same spot, able to look forward only, and prevented by the fetters from turning their heads. Picture further the light from a fire burning higher up and at a distance behind them, and between the fire and the prisoners and above them a road along which a low wall has been built, as the exhibitors of puppet shows have partitions before the men themselves, above which they show the puppets…See also, then, men carrying past the wall implements of all kinds that rise above the wall, and human images and shapes of animals as well, wrought in stone and wood and every material, some of these bearers presumably speaking and others silent.

What the men see, therefore, is not each other nor the men behind them, but only the shadow cast from the fire onto the wall of the cave that is in front of them. That is what constitutes reality for them – the shadows on the wall. The scenario continues:

Consider, then, what [would happen when] one was freed from his fetters and compelled to stand up suddenly and turn his head around and walk and to lift up his eyes to the light?…And if he were compelled to look at the light itself, would not that pain his eyes, and would he not turn away and flee to those things which he is able to discern and regard them as in very deed more clear and exact than the objects pointed out?[21]

For Derrida, the Father-as-Source of logos is located here in the place of that blinding light, the visible-invisible figure of the Sun as the origin of all “onta” (or Being). The shadows on the wall function as the logos, which represents him by proxy along the logic of a penumbra: that partial shadow, as in an eclipse, which allows something to be partially seen by blocking it out. But in doing so, the penumbra, as a type of pharmakon or supplement is a toxin in the very space of presence it means to relay.

Herein lies the paradox of signification in general, and writing in specific: the necessity of a representation to signify pure presence through blocking that which such representation means to preserve (the very definition of writing). This paradox was, of course, a basic poststructuralist lesson in linguistics that intrigued a branch of postmodern artists in the very decade that Serra sought to defend the presence of his project through the truthfulness of his written record. And it was the same paradox that produced the aporic site of Tilted Arc, a site in which the controversy that logically succeeded it could, in fact, be understood as simultaneously producing it. For, without the controversy, transcribed into writing, “Tilted Arc,” the last living artifact of modernism’s logos of site-specificity, could never have been directly seen. Unwittingly, however, through the very act of being written, “Tilted Arc” became that wall within Plato’s cave, displaying the projected, and thus enacted reflections of modernism’s belief in the transcendence of site within in the form of a minimalist dialectical reversal. Without the written supplement, such an “Arc” would never have existed. It would have remained sited in another signifying order, and as such it would have stood as that anachronistic rusted, steel wall, merely punctuating the end of an “embodied” sculpture’s transgressive project.

What we have, then, is Derrida’s legacy of logos enacted by Serra in the following manner:

First, we have what Serra intends – that his word means something in the living logos of his minimalist form, against which a dangerous (postmodern) subject is born in the form of the discursive site that undercuts the authority of his own word (on site). This is the instance in which Serra enacts the Platonic fear of speaking without knowing. But in the same gesture we have a dialectical reversal, a negation of a negation, which puts Serra’s word in the mimetic space of Greenberg’s. Serra, as a man of his word in the late moment of minimalism’s last gasp, thus exists as a pivot between high modernism and postmodernism, and against all intentions he at once begets one inasmuch as he is begot by the other:

A boomerang effect is thus in play here, one in which the minimalist claim against authorial intentionality is undercut by the inherent intentionality of such a claim. For the work never simply is. Rather it begets as much as it is begot by the other that it is not, something Tilted Arc demonstrated through the social and philosophic fields in which it was inextricably entangled. And in the course of all this we experience the strange turn of events, a chronological reversal, whereby Tilted Arc gets away from Serra insofar as he moves uncomfortably closer to Greenberg’s modernism, as the prodigal son.

My use of the term “boomerang,” is knowingly ironic, as it is the title of a video made by Serra himself that demonstrated the operation I am describing here; simply, that a subject is never located only in the place from which he/she speaks. Boomerang (1974) records Nancy Holt speaking with a slightly delayed audio feedback delivered to her through the headphones she wears. The video is called “boomerang” because it aptly demonstrates the state in which the subject experiences the temporal and psychic effect of chronological reversal. For Holt’s own words come to her as much as they come from her. Increasingly, as the tape records ten minutes of this operation, we are confronted with the fact that there is no speaking subject behind the word, only a subject spoken retroactively by one’s own word. Likewise, if Tilted Arc is a model of the last living logos of Greenberg, as I’ve been arguing, it isn’t due to Serra’s authorial intention. Rather it is due to a certain time delayed feedback of its own. Moreover, the point should be made even more clearly that the author’s intention for a given project’s criticality does nothing to secure its function as such. For as regressive as I am arguing Tilted Arc to be, Serra’s own Boomerang video just as clearly makes the case for an orphaned model of time that undermines the branch of modernism to which Greenberg has been attached and for which (in the end) Serra’s Tilted Arc unwittingly speaks.

Part II: On Time

Now, to begin again. In Plato’s Republic, the cave puts into operation the dynamic of two walls: one behind the men over which objects were held as in a puppet show and another onto which these objects’ shadows were projected. Should the men have turned around, they would have been blinded by the source of light that afforded the objects’ presence via their projection; which is to say, the men would have been scotomatized by the very source that afforded the objects’ inscription onto the world of representation. However, what we know of writing’s paradox is that the subject may not, in fact, be blinded by the instance of an actual “sun” – itself a classic metaphor of pure auratic presence – but an effect the subject may experience of being blinded.

What then blinds the subject if we are speaking not of a referent but of an effect? If we rethink this scenario in psychoanalytic terms, what would blind the subject, should he turn and look beyond representation towards what he believes to be the site of a primordial source of inscription? The answer would be a dazzling encounter with something undifferentiated, which is to say, an encounter with pure nothingness. It would, in short, be a brushing up against what Lacan calls the “real,” that third register of the subject’s psyche that can’t be represented in itself, even as it drives the subject’s position within the two other registers that do stand within representation.[22] These two registers are characterized for the subject in the following way: On the one hand, there is the acquisition of convention based upon semiotic difference (constituting the register of the symbolic), and on the other, the specular identification within the symbolic’s visual terms (constituting the register of the imaginary). The concept of a “source” in the space of the real, then, unlike Plato’s light, is something that quite simply exists by not existing at all, designating the real as a psychic function between the two other registers rather than a hidden thing beyond them. The subject, however, consistent with Platonic thought, needs to believe, against all evidence to the contrary, that the real exists in the place of something lost vis-à-vis its representation. Which is to say, when the subject looks at a representation, he staves off – though he is at once driven by – the threatening recognition that there may, in fact, be nothing at all lacking in what he sees.

What if we were to rethink the Platonic penumbra, not as a thing that obstructs something else, allowing us to glean that thing’s glow through its partial obstruction, but rather as a state in which something hides the fact of nothing. Should we do so, a Lacanian penumbra would present itself, illustrating the manner in which the subject retroactively posits (albeit phantasmatically) something (some thing-in-itself) that pre-exists penumbral obstruction. And what if we were to apply this Lacanian principle, not to a deconstruction of the residual classicism of late modernist thought in the moment of postmodernism’s challenge of presence, but as a working condition of more recent deconstructions of site, one in which a temporal and spatial paradox is courted rather than disavowed? What would such an artwork look like? More importantly, what would it do?

Recourse to an anecdote is appropriate here. At Otis’s Fall 2000 artist lecture series, one of the participating lecturers, Kenny Berger, presented a talk on his installation project entitled Wall Memories.[23] The project was provoked by the artist’s simultaneous realization of two facts in the course of his graduate studies at UCLA. The first realization was “meta-historical.” In the year 1989 a series of extraordinary events took place: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the student uprisings at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the imprisonment and release of Vaclav Havel in Prague, Operation Just Cause in Panama, The Exxon Valdese oil spill, the passage of the Helms Amendment barring any government funding of “homosexual” art, and amidst all this, the destruction of Tilted Arc. The second realization was autobiographic, a type of reaction-formation to the weight of this historical convergence. “The thing that struck me, in particular,” Berger explained, “was how entirely inaccessible an intelligible recollection of that history was to me.” The project thus took as its point of departure the temporal contiguity (in psychoanalytic terms) of the larger issue of historical memory (1989) with the specific problematic of the subject’s incapacity to remember such history (1998).

Cutting across this dialectic was a peculiar “screen memory,” a “little catastrophe,” as it were, mediating the “big catastrophe.” The one thing Berger could recollect of this historical moment, with sudden but great clarity, was the following event: In 1989, on the eve of Berger’s annual high school charity basketball game, a flaming car was sent speeding across the field, destroying the school’s cafeteria. The result of this event – the “catastrophe” for the subject here – was that the game was cancelled. Berger’s talk went on to discuss how he chose to visualize the interaction of these three “moments,” reduced to three discursive-temporal “sites” (the historic fall of the Berlin Wall, the teenage basketball anecdote, and contemporary (meta)historical consciousness) in order to address, as he put it, the “representational modalities for the effective address of history.”

And then came the outburst. A German exchange student, excited and exasperated, demanded to know why Berger refused to do the appropriate thing; that is to say, why he refused to memorialize the fall of the Berlin Wall in the form of a proper public monument. For a monument, the student argued, was precisely what we needed in order to mourn and move on, something we could do only by locating the historical moment there (then) and our memorial here (now). Of course, such an historicist notion of time is constituted by/from a discrete point of (meta)retrospective. And on this note, the student’s challenge to Berger’s “atemporal” relation to the Wall is not limited to 20th century discourse on the problems of memorialization, a topic to which I will return. Rather, this logos has its roots (again) in classic Greek philosophy.

Aristotle: Father Time

Of time Aristotle asserts “while it is resoluble into parts, some parts have been, some are to be, and none is.”[24] Which is to say, time marks change on the level of our discerning a “before” and an “after” in relation to a given event. In this formulation the “now” necessarily stands outside of time because when we feel we are in time, we feel ourselves separated from the temporal positions of “before” and “after.” Put another way, in the “now,” no time seems to have passed, but when we do perceive a “before” and an “after” we are then speaking of time.

This notion of time should sound linear, even numerical in its progressive nature. On the analogy of time to numbers, Aristotle was in fact quite clear.

For that is what time is: number of change in respect of the before and after. So time is not change but is that in respect of which change has a number. And indication: we discern the greater and the less by number, and greater and less change by time; hence time is a kind of number.[25]

Thus, the thing that we are counting when we count time is “befores” and “afters.” If the “now,” on the other hand, is quantitative at all, it has a value of zero because its value is not based upon a period of time, but of an instantaneity that transcends time. Unlike time, “now” is thus an indivisible and durationless point, a point that can be counted only once it has turned into that which has “ceased to be.” Moreover, the “now,” if it is not a period, is the limit of a period; for it determines time by marking itself off from the future and the past without taking up any time itself. In this way, time is not an adjoining of one now to another, because that would create a situation in which there were a simultaneity of “nows” in between which we would find infinitely more “nows.” To the contrary, Aristotle argues, this is temporally impossible because if “both previous and subsequent nows are in this present now, then events of a thousand years ago will be simultaneous with those of today and none will be either previous or subsequent to any other.”[26] So the “now,” which is to say the present (and by extension presence), is outside of time because it is singular, incapable as it is of being redoubled. Simply, for what stands as present, there is only the here and now.

This model of time relates to history, as conceived of in a scientific positivist light – a classic model based upon the successivity of events as first articulated by Thucydides. Aristotle’s notion of time is thus the edifice for the historicist practice of teleological narration, one that works from (and through) a transcendental position of “now,” while ensuing a calculation of the succession of clearly delineated “befores” and “afters,” in relation to a given event. Such historical successivity is afforded by the indivisiblity of the “now,” for if “now” were divisible, “part of the past [would] be in the future and part of the future in the past,” Aristotle argues. “For the point at which [now] is divided [would] be the boundary of past and future time.” Yet even as the endless divisibility of the present wasn’t conceivable for Aristotle or Thucydides, it is the fundamental principle underlying a psychoanalytic model of time. Freud’s notion of time is one in which past and present loop infinitely around each other, precisely enacting the simultaneity of “now” and the “events of a thousand years ago.”

Herein lies the classic problematic of temporality that still fosters debate: the assertion of an Aristotelian “moment-in-itself” against a poststructuralist “moment-not-itself,” a debate reiterated in the polemic in which materialist historians (or dialecticians) and Freudian-Lacanians engage.[27] And it is here that we circle back to the German student’s demand for a proper memorial. For it is the Aristotelian, dialectical model of time that the logos of public memorials speak.

Memorials and Monuments: The Son’s Return

Memorials stem from the mindset that one needs “to come to terms with the past.” But as Adorno argues, specifically in relation to Holocaust memorials, coming to terms with the past “doesn’t imply a serious working through the past, the breaking of its spell through an act of clear consciousness.” Rather, “it suggests…wishing to turn the page and if possible, wiping it from memory,” because to memorialize is to leave behind; moreover, it is to “forgive and forget.”[28] The paradoxical act of remembering something in order to leave it behind should point us to the impossibility of locating a time that is clearly past, as Aristotle would have liked. This is because the past is always already located (constituted) in (by) a given desire to remember it in the “present.” However, we consciously deny this paradox in the instance of reflection or historicization, as we need a “before this” in order to free ourselves from the past. But this “before” is actually conceived in the phantasmatic space from which we believe ourselves to be perceiving it; which is to say, the “before” is instituted in the very space it is not – in the discrete, timeless, “now.”

Recognizing this is not a relativist, historicist gesture. For there is an ideological impulse at work when we manipulate history by disavowing our continual presence in it, which is the implication of memorials that posit historicity as unmediated meaning afforded by a classical concept of time. To deny the manner in which meaning is mediated by paradoxes of temporality is to cut ourselves out of history and consequently to remain unaccountable for what we ideologically and unconsciously place in the site of our so-called “discoveries.” This is not to say that we are only ever and solely there in the past either. Rather, it is time’s paradoxical looping effect that is important to maintain because the conflation of a given “then” simply as “now” amounts to the same move as positing a “then” versus “now.” Which is to say, either move alone feigns an authentic return to a “now” that has “ceased to be” in the space of time conceived like a tapestry composed of discrete present and future moments delineated by an ephemeral present. But this is merely a phantasmatic tapestry through which the subject, unmediated by the unconscious intellectual constraints of his own condition, feels himself free to weave in and out.

Here I am specifically thinking of the problematic James Young attaches to the most cathected of war monuments: the reconstruction of German death camps, such as Auschwitz, which he calls “memorial camps.”[29] The trouble with memorial camps, directly related to the ideological use of Aristotelian time, is the way in which they collapse the difference between themselves and what they evoke, afforded by the viewing subject’s phantasy of time travel. Young describes it this way:

In these “memorial camps” (as I will call them), the icons of destruction seem to appropriate the very authority of the original events themselves. Operating upon the same rhetorical principle as the photograph, in which representation and object appear to be one, the memorial camps at Majdanek and Auschwitz are devastating in their impact – not just for what they remember, but because they compel the visitor to accept the horrible fact that what they show is “real.”…[T]he camps have been have been preserved almost exactly as the Russians found them forty years ago…Nothing but airy time seems to mediate between the visitor and past realities, which are not merely re-presented by these artifacts but present in them… Claiming the authority of unreconstructed realities, the memorial camps invite us not only to mistake their reality for the actual death camps’ reality but also confuse an implicit, monumentalized vision with unmediated history.[30]

Though they contrive to preserve for memory the suffering of the victim and the past crime of the Nazis (a sort of dutiful writing of the victims’ suffering word as pure presence), these camps, of course, are anything but unmediated. To the contrary, memorial camps are, in fact, constituted by the same paradox Roland Barthes used to described the photograph’s essence: the coexistence of its “there-then” (the event) with its “here-now” (the image). For memorial camps are paradoxically as much about those who maintain them now as they are about those who maintained them then. In both instances the camp’s maintenance relies upon national myths, religious archetypes, and ideological paradigms, the first time as tragedy the second time as farce, as Marx said of the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

As such, memorial camps remember the victims to the extent that they continue to (re)write the victimizers’ ideology – one unconsciously brewed in the present through the very belief that one is authentically returning to something irretrievably past. On this point, Young states:

In fact, the Holocaust memorials throughout the Eastern Bloc are often as Judenrein as the countries in which they stand. Jewish themes in these monuments are usually found only in the languages used to inscribe a memorial message. So in the center of a symbolic graveyard at Treblinka, enclosed by hundreds of protruding, jagged rocks set in concrete slabs, a stone plaque reads from top to bottom in Yiddish, Russian, English, French, German and Polish: “Never again.” What it is that must not happen again is left to the visitor’s imagination. [31]

In this memorial camp and in others like Auschwitz-Birkenau, the “remembering icons” continue to elide the religious identity of the victims and why they suffered, an elision based upon the residual intolerance for those who no longer remain but who, nevertheless, are historically “memorialized.” Memorialization, as a kind of screen memory taken for a real event, thus covers up a contemporary intolerance in the same gesture that it symptomatically and supplementally acts it out. Camp memorials, in particular, let us forget one thing (a present, unconscious anti-semitism) in the place of remembering another (a past, conscious anti-semitism).

The Moment-Not-Itself: Orphaned Memories

There is an ethical dimension, then, to avowing the moment-not-itself, something that Berger’s Wall Memories plays upon.[32] Operating from the position of “orphaned” time, that is, operating from the psychoanalytic model of time against the more ubiquitous one of Aristotle, he makes us ask who looks from where and for what? This atemporal representation of the Berlin Wall’s destruction (“atemporal” in the sense of metalypsis not transcendence), positions the viewer squarely within the Lacanian dilemma of the scopic drive. As Lacan said in Seminar XI: “When, in love, I solicit a look, what is profoundly unsatisfying and always missing is that – You never look at me from the place from which I see you. Conversely, what I look at is never what I wish to see.[33] In love, there is thus the problem of an untraversable divide, initiated by the primordial instance of the mirror stage, which the historian analogously faces vis-à-vis his object cause of desire in the form of a “lost” past event. As Lacan said, on the matter of the subject’s never being able to complete himself by way of coalescing with the other, there is no sexual relation. The same may be extended, allegorically, to the historian and his event when we say: there is no historical relation.

This is not to say there is no history, but rather, it is impossible to attain the highly cathected object that we approach, be it in love or in research, because it is the very impossibility that makes an object cathected in the first place. The nature of this impossibility can be described by Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise at race. Simply put, the slower runner, the tortoise, will never be overtaken by Achilles, for the pursuant runner must first reach the point from which the slower runner started, such that the slower must always be some distance ahead. This implies a the paradox of infinite regress at work in the very instance of each step forward a runner takes. Say I want to move a certain distance, 100 feet, in a certain amount of time. I’ll never actually get there from here because to reach the 100 feet mark, I must first reach the 50 feet mark, and to reach that I must first reach the 25 feet mark, but to do that I must first reach the 12.5 feet mark, and so on and so forth, until I have not moved at all. Of course, a person in the world can actually walk forward 100 feet. So what we have here is a paradox of mathematical logic that posits at once the indivisibility of space and its divisibility, a paradox that can psychoanalytically be extended to interrogate positivist historical logic. For an unavoidable recursivity unconsciously undercuts a subject’s conscious actions as he actually approaches his (historical) object. This is the crux of Wall Memories’ investigation: the manner in which the historian’s approach is necessarily (but unconsciously) all aim and no goal.

On this level, the issue of recollection is central to Berger, as it is the point at which his own positionality is interrogated. The problem of memory that attends all historical investigation is especially acute for those of Berger’s generation, raised in a post-Baudriardian moment of critical recuperation aided by academia’s consumerist proliferation of cultural theory departments. Simply and literally, for many there is nothing beyond representation because the nebulous category “representation” problematically is the meta-object of analysis. No relational paradox at work here, only the flip side of the Platonic ideal, as the memorial camps demonstrated: the Aristotelian “it just is.” In filmic terms, the historical event that the documentary Holocaust humanistically tried to represent, just is the movie Schindler’s List for a subsequent generation raised on the simulacrum.[34]

However, either move (humanist Marxist or postmodern simulationist) turns a blind eye to the manner in which “nothing” functions as a driving thing in representation. This “nothing” is quite different from a nothing that is nothing at all, the latter of which dialectically maintains the positivist belief in something being “nothing but this.” Such a positivist, simulationist impulse is an instance of the subject aligning himself with the image. Because, of course, such a move is a type of reaction-formation devised to tame the image. Which it does by laying down the threat attached to knowing that beyond the image there is nothing to see or to be in, a threat produced by the subject’s desire to believe, in fact, that there is something beyond the image to see – the desire to see what the image represents. But as I previously said in the context of a Lacanian penumbra, the subject is chasing something he can’t have because this “thing” necessarily and paradoxically is only ever there in the form of that-which-it-is-not. The scopic drive, nevertheless, provides a consistent enough pressure for the subject to continue his pursuit: to peel away one layer of representation after another in order to find or experience something essential. In so doing, the subject enacts an attempt to regress infinitely into a state of pure presence of form, some thing in some place, of course, that he can’t and won’t ever encounter. Hence: What I look at is never what I wish to see.

How, then, does the subject approach the historical event as it comes to be represented vis-à-vis a problematic of “nothing?” It’s a pertinent question because to ask this cuts across the dialectic of an authentic moment behind representation versus a tautological conflation of an event with its representation as the event. But how to get there, to the event, when there’s no there there? As Berger’s work demonstrates, putting the concept of a screen memory into play with one’s narrativization impulse (a constant pressure in our conceiving of time), visualizes (as oppose to solves) the problem of nothingness vis-à-vis historical memory and representation.

Berger’s use of the screen memory in his work is neither a search for the humanist, ontological event (epistemologically barred from him) nor the semiotic certitude of the image alone (an uncritical move towards coalescence). Instead he looks for the operation of what Lacan calls the “vel,” that paradoxical imbrication of the “neither/nor” of two different sets. For Lacan, the vel is the source of the subject’s primordial alienation not because he exists only in the field of the other but rather because he finds himself in the division between “meaning” and “aphanisis.” Conventionally we know of two vels. The first one posits an either here or there (I can’t have both, I must choose). The second posits a relativist either here or there (it doesn’t matter which, I’m ambivalent). Lacan, however, is interested in a third vel. “The vel of alienation,” he explains in Seminar 11, “is defined by a choice whose properties depend on this, that there is, in the joining [of two sets] one element that, whatever the choice operating may be, has as its consequence a neither one, nor the other.”[35] The example he gives is the impossibility of choosing between the threat “Your money or your life.” To pick money means giving up one’s life, but to pick life with no money is to have no life at all. One can exist in neither one state nor the other.

Lacan thus argues that the subject is defined in a state of alienation afforded by a primordial impossibility of separating being and meaning. For instance, in conceiving of a subject, if I choose to place him solely in the position of “being,” the subject disappears because he falls into non-meaning (i.e., outside language). If I choose meaning, the subject survives only deprived of that part of non-meaning that constitutes in the realization of the subject the unconscious (i.e., into positivism). Extended to the historical event in Berger’s work: I am neither here (on the side of meaning in representation) nor there (on the side of being in the space of the event). As such, subjectivity – constituted as a temporal crisis – is located in the division between the two. Historically speaking, if we choose the pure presence of the event (being), the event falls outside of meaning; if we choose the mere representation of an event (meaning), the image/text falls outside of any recognition of the subject/analyst’s unconscious affect. Thus said what is the “here/there” of Berger’s investigation? Moreover, what is the division in Wall Memories, through which the subject is constituted vis-à-vis his object cause of desire, one that phantasmatically promises to resolve the subject’s paradoxical temporal position?

First, a description of the installation’s physical layout, which enacts a certain spatial “vel.” Berger calls the structural center of this enclosed installation a spatial “no man’s land,” a space as much defined by its two “exterior” borders – two 8 x 4 x 23 foot walls adjoining two permanent structural walls – as these borders are defined by the space between them. The “exterior” of these borders, moreover, is not secure because their porousness simultaneously directs our attention to the installation’s interior. On the outside of one border, a small “window” allows us to physically glimpse the interior. On the outside of the opposite border, a built in video monitor shows a looped segment from the movie Crash, in which the protagonist’s car crashes through a highway divider. This allows us to “preview” intellectually the interior montage of video projection and audio narrative, directly related to the Berlin Wall.

Such spatial paradoxes as these were fundamental to minimalist practices like Morris’s, exemplified by his four mirrored cubes whereby “interior” and “exterior” hang in the balance of infinite chiasmus – the exterior of the cubes simultaneously reflecting the interior of the house in which it sits. What is different in Berger’s case is that this spatial paradox, or vel, intersects with something the minimalists overtly kept out of their work in the sixties: narrativity. In Berger’s hands, however, the narrative isn’t overlaid onto the work as with Haacke’s 80s Isolation Box, wherein we see the conventional vel: here, a cube, there, a narrative covering it like a skin – an approach that informed Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work of the same period. In Wall Memories, phenomenological experience can’t be separated from (nor conjoined with) narrativity, as the latter can only be gleaned vis-à-vis the space that it is not. If the two are bound up, they connect such that something of (or between) these two sets of ideas, derived from the meta-idea of being and meaning, is never there as either one or the other. Rather, something paradoxically exists at the interstice of neither phenomenology nor narrativity. Which is to say, the event’s meaning is neither physically here in the installation nor conceptually there in its historic, referential site. Rather the event’s meaning performatively drops out of (but is simultaneously produced within) the tension between the two. And by imaginary extension, the subject’s meaning drops out/exists in this vel because the subject is never solely there in the field of historic other, nor is he here in the space of perception.

The question of narrativity brings us to a temporal vel, which deconstructs the conventions of narrativity. In the installation’s “interior” a video projection is culled from three sources: Ode to Joy and Freedom, a documentary on the fall of the Wall; videotaped material recorded during Berger’s visit to Berlin on the tenth anniversary of the fall; and Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders’ 1987 film. Projected eight feet high onto one of the permanent walls, the looped images alternate and pulsate at varying rapid speeds, ranging from 1/15th to 17/30th of a second. The audio narrative, delivered in a monotoned voice over, is also culled from three sources: the novel Crash, in which the protagonist gives a first person account of imaginary car crashes; a first person account of Berger’s own recollection of his high school car crash; and a series of newspaper excerpt discussing the high school accident. The audio narrative, delivered in a single voice, alternates from source to source such that the subject position “I” continually displaces itself from one temporal, discursive site to another. Exactly who is speaking, in relation to what event/image, slips and slides in an atemporal pulse evoking the undifferentiated, free flowing character of unconscious drives.

It is precisely in relation to this temporal “vel” that the screen memory enters the picture. 1989 is ostensibly the “there” – but it is only there insofar as the adult recollection of a childhood dream by the Wolfman, Freud’s famous analysand, was the belated “there” of an even earlier primordial event. Analogously, the adult recollection in 1998 of a childhood event from the year 1989 retroactively points to an even earlier moment in which the subject phantasmatically understands (or projects) what it is like not to be able to be a Communist in a post-cold war episteme (after the fall of the Berlin Wall) or, associatively, a modernist (after the destruction of Tilted Arc). What is “here” in the space of the subject’s “now” are representations of or near the year 1989, both documentary (Ode to Freedom) and literary (Wings of Desire). Between the temporal site (there/here) and discursive site (fact/fiction) the screen memory intervenes quite literally in the guise of a car crash, represented associatively through the newspaper accounts (documentary) and the movie/novel Crash (literary).

Through the screen memory’s temporal intervention, Berger thus presents us with an endlessly divisible “now.” However it is not a divisible “now” located at one point in time that infinitely regresses to its interior – a sort of Chinese box effect. Rather, the “now” is divisible in its endless temporal displacement. In this way, instead of an instantaneous “now” at the limits of before and after, we have what Aristotle dismissed as a simultaneity of “nows.” Which is to say, in Wall Memories the “before” (Communism and Modernism) is not delimited from the “after” (contemporary recollection) by way of a transcendent and therefore forever lost “now” that in “ceasing-to-be” becomes a monumental event (the fall of the Wall and the destruction of Tilted Arc). Rather, the screen memory, characterized as it is by making meaning for the subject through the deferred action of “recognition,” affords the temporal confusion Aristotle warned against: part of the future is in the past and part of the past in the future.

So, what falls out of the temporal division here? What is the subject’s object-cause of desire, or that “thing” algebraically standing in for a phantasmatically lost object produced in the vel between being and meaning?[36] This may very well be our idea of the event in question. In the last two decades of the 20th century, “returns” to the events of WWII and the subsequent Cold War typically oscillate between spectacular consumption (narcissistic indulgence and commodification) or political passivity (let’s wipe the slate clean and move on).[37] Between these two cynical variations of postmodernism I have posited a psychoanalytic model as a critical imperative. For this allows us to visualize the space of the drive itself, that is, the subject’s aim of getting to the (lost) event, which in fact circles around our idea of that event, presented to us in the guise of its multifarious visual representations. In so doing, perhaps Wall Memories’ most ethical achievement is the manner in which, unlike conventional memorials, it makes no attempt to (re)present the pain (or the pleasure) of a highly cathected past political moment. Rather, it effects the subject’s contemporary pain of never being able to get at that moment, though he endlessly takes aim.

Leaving the event altogether (being without meaning) or simply coalescing around its image (meaning without being) are normative goal-oriented approaches to history and memorialization. Again, Berger is working across either trajectory. For many, the fall of the Berlin Wall specifically meant the end of communism as a failed experiment, but more generally it also meant the death of a certain conviction of presence. Rather than taking either a cynical or a melancholic approach to the impossibility of re-presenting the event, Wall Memories takes the problematic of never being able to attain the (lost) moment as a means of asserting conviction itself. For it is there that the subject wants to be. For it is in this space of wanting – a space neither before nor after –that we find the subject’s closest proximity to his object, in the space of the simultaneous (non-self-same) now.

Coda: The International Style

In the space of art, supplanting the subject’s phantasy of historical plenitude necessarily entails supplanting his phantasy of visual plenitude as well, a lack afforded by the artist performatively positioning the viewer within the eye of historicity’s repressed non-linearity. To best do so, however, means taking up what Rosalind Krauss called the contemporary, problematic of “international phenomenon of installation art,” which grew out of 70s and 80s institutional critique. [38] Simply put, the problematic is this. In the wake of late conceptualist practices – ones I’ve described in this volume as constituting a reaction-formation against Greenbergian reductivism – a set of younger installation artists often dispense entirely with any consideration of aesthetics, phenomenological or otherwise in the interest of social commentary alone. [39] On this note, I believe video installation artists tend to be the worst offenders. But it is upon this normative platform of video installation – with its requisite looping projections and architectural partition walls – that a Lacanian rupture is best made into the viewing field.

First a date and event marking the scene of the crime: In 2001 the Venice Biennale showcased video art that have ushered in 10 years of international installation art. Since then, Group shows like “Making Time: Considering Time as a Material in Contemporary Video & Film” mounted at UCLA’s Armand Hammer Museum (2001), contemporary video installations, regardless of the artists’ intentions, have increasingly left behind the paradoxes of subjectivity and presence that dominated the medium in the 70s. I am thinking of such important 70s work as Serra’s Boomerang or Vito Acconci’s Centers (1971), in contrast to recent work by Douglas Gordon among others. While Gordon (debatably) makes video projections purporting to disrupt the conventions of narrativity and temporality, cultural institutions nevertheless consume and “frame” the work as if they were color field painting. In this way, recent video in the form of large scale, discrete projections, are now as common as modernist painting was in the 60s (Jules Olitski et. al.) or “trans-avant-garde” painting was in the 80s (Julian Schnabel, et. al.). Increasingly, video art is installed so monumentally that the fundamental qualities Greenberg alternately attached to the medium of painting (flatness of image and disembodied opticality) are similarly emphasized. Indeed, in both “Making Time” and the 2001 Biennale, recent video work was projected in individual darkened rooms such that their interactivity with anything other than one’s singular, transcendent point of vision could phantasmatically be negated. Significantly, in “Making Time” all videos from the 70s were shown in one room on different monitors, not only affording a certain seriality but a definite interactivity. The 90s videos, on the other hand, were all located, and segregated, elsewhere.

Wall Memories borrows two key traits from this “international style” – projection and isolation. But it does so with the intention of putting what Krauss calls the “self-differential condition of mediums” to work against the phantasy of transcendent, self-same visual plenitude that usually attends these traits. Berger’s work thus proposes that sculpture’s expanded field be extended beyond (while still incorporating) the materialist conditions of the work’s exhibition (minimalism’s project in the 60s), the non-narrative capacity of film (structuralism’s project in the 70s), or the discursive function of the work’s “allegorical impulse” (appropriation’s project in the 80s). Berger factors into this “expanded” field the temporal problematic of historical site, a move that necessarily entails the employment of psychoanalytic paradoxes as both a methodological and a critical tool. Such a move puts the operation of the drive to work as a conceptual device capable of visualizing what video artists explored in the 70s: the self-differential condition of time. It does so, however, beyond the formalist, narcissistic concerns of video’s first generation artists. In Berger’s hands, the “field” thus expands from the medium-not-itself to the (historical) moment-not-itself, a critical reconfiguration of “site-specificity” at a time when the impasse between relativism and humanism has ushered in a disengaged, site-less model of video as the new formalist painting, the latter of which is not what Krauss had in mind when, in 1999, she introduced the concept of a critically “outmoded” medium specificity in contemporary art…

  1. Clara Weyergraf-Serra and Martha Buskirk, eds., The Destruction of Tilted Arc: Documents, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991). The book includes an introduction by Richard Serra.

  2. Mark Wigley, On Site, unpublished manuscript (at time of this writing).

  3. Jacques Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy,” collected in Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

  4. The chart should make it clear that there are two concepts of writing. One is borne of the “good” son, a transcriber who invents a transparent form of writing through which speech comes to be. This is why the category “speech” is positioned under “Son.” Another is borne of the “orphaned” son, one who invents an opaque form of writing through which the purity of the speaker’s word comes to be corrupted. This is why the category “writing” is positioned under “Orphan.”

  5. Jonathan Culler synopsizes Nietzsche’s notion of chornologishce Umdrehun this way: “Suppose one feels a pain. This causes one to look for a cause and spying, perhaps, a pin, one posits a link and reverses the perceptual or phenomenal order, pain…pin, to produce a causal sequence, pin…pain.” Likewise, in Werke, Nietzsche thus derives the following temporal dilemma: “The fragment of the outside world of which we become conscious comes after the effect that has been produced on us and is projected a posteriori as its ‘cause.” In the phenomenalism of the ‘inner world’ we invert the chronology of cause and effect. The basic fact of ‘inner experience’ is that the cause gets imagined after the effect has occurred.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Werke, vol. 3, ed. Karl Schlecter, Munich, 1986.) Cited in Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), p. 86.

  6. Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” collected in The Anti-Aesthetic, ed. Hal Foster, (Port Townsend: Bay Press, 1983), p. 36.

  7. Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting,” in The Collected Essays and Criticism, vol. 4, ed. John O’Brian, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), pp. 85-93.

  8. Rosalind Krauss, The Optical Unconscious, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993), p. 98.

  9. This claim for what Krauss would later call sculpture’s embodied “expanded field,” wasn’t limited to proponents of Minimalism. In fact, Michael Fried, Greenberg’s main spokesman, based his critique of minimalist form precisely on the work’s characteristic phenomenological occupation of the viewer’s entire field of vision. In his classic essay, “Art and Objecthood,” he clearly demonstrates his understanding of Morris’s brand of minimalism, thus positioning himself dialectically against it: “[In minimalist work]the object, not the beholder, must remain the center or focus of the situation; but the situation itself belongs to the beholder – it is his situation. Or as Morris has remarked, ‘I wish to emphasize that things are in a space with oneself, rather than …[that] one is in a space surrounded by things.’….It is, I think, worth remarking that ‘the entire situation’ means exactly that: all of it – including, it seems, the beholder’s body. There is nothing within his field of vision – nothing that he takes note of in any way – that, as it were, declares its irrelevance to the situation, and therefore to the experience, in question.” Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” collected in Gregory Battcock, ed., Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1968), p. 127. See also, Robert Morris’s “Notes on Sculpture,” collected in the same anthology.

  10. As for those works occupying the “permanent’ site, Heizer and Smithson have conventionally been lumped together within the category “earthworks.” However, it should be noted that Smithson’s entire project in general, and Spiral Jetty in specific, may be said to have challenged the very notion of site (as a transcendental signified) through which earthworks were (and still are) commonly understood. For a discussion of Smithson’s interrogation of a transcendental notion of site specificity, see chapter four of this volume.

  11. Cited in William J.R. Curtis, Modern Architecture Since 1900, (Oxford: Phaidon Press, 1982), p. 200.

  12. The Destruction of Tilted Arc, p. 124.

  13. Ibid., p. 12.

  14. George Pitcher has described the terms of tautologies as “true solely in virtue of the definitions of the basic logical constants, as given in their truth tables, and since we

    ourselves set up these truth tables in the first place, it is not surprising that we can know

    ahead of time that logical propositions must always be true.” This certainty is secured,

    then, at the price of saying “nothing.” Wittgenstein put the non-committal positionality

    of tautologies that describe no situation at all this way:


    4. 461: (Like a point from which two arrows go out in opposite directions to one


    (For example, I know nothing about weather when I know that it is either raining

    or not raining).


    Hence, tautologies are excused from contradiction. They are infinitely more so than

    “pictures” of reality because tautologies admit all possible situations, based as they are on

    the hermetic terms of their own debate. See: George Pitcher, The Philosophy of Wittgenstein, (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1964), p. 109.

  15. For a specific discussion of how the controversy surrounding Tilted Arc served as an index of a disharmonious public sphere, one that is repressed by the notion of a utopian public borne of Enlightenment thought, see Rosalyn Deutsche’s “Tilted Arc and the Uses of Democracy,” in her Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996).

  16. The Destruction of Tilted Arc, p. 117.

  17. Ibid., p. 120.

  18. Ibid., p. 126.

  19. Ibid., p. 81.

  20. Ibid., p. 3.

  21. Ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Carins, The Collected Dialogues of Plato, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), pp. 747-748.

  22. I am delineating these registers and heavily reducing their characteristics for brevity’s sake. However, their interlocking complexity, like Charles Peirce’s notion of the sign, is of great importance to note. One should not make the same erroneous presumption of the real, symbolic, and imaginary registers as have been made of the indexical, symbolic and iconic facets of the sign. For just as there is no pure index, Peirce was quite clear on this point, there is no “real” apart from the symbolic or imaginary registers, bound together as they are in a borromean knot.

  23. The installation is documented in EAST International, Norwich Gallery, (Norfolk: Norwich School of Art and Design, 2001).

  24. Aristotle, Physics, (Book IV, Chapter 10, 218a, 5), collected in J.L. Ackrill, ed. A New Aristotle Reader, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), p. 123.

  25. Physics, (IV, 11 219b 5); Ackrill, p. 125.

  26. Physics, (IV, 10 218a 25); Ackrill, p. 123.

  27. See: Slavoj Zizek, The Fragile Absolute (New York: Verso, 2000; Joan Copjec Read My Desire: Lacan Against the Historicists (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994); and Joel Fineman’s The Subjectivity Effect in Western Literary Tradition: Essays Towards the Release of Shakespeare’s Will, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991).

  28. Theodor Adorno, “What Does Coming to Terms with the Past Mean?” in Bitburg in Moral and Political Perspective, ed. Geoffrey Hartman, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), p. 115.

  29. James Young, “Memory and Monument,” collected in Bitburg in Moral and Political Perspective.

  30. Ibid., p. 106.

  31. Ibid.

  32. The arguments I am making here about the historical event and the ethics of a non-positivist approach are taken up in a different context, that of the “face of the other,” by Emmanuel Levinas. Specifically relevant is his discussion of what lies beyond the face for the subject, a concept that allows identity to coalesce. It isn’t within the scope of this essay to weave his theory of the other overtly into this discussion. I cite him, however, in order to signal a loose intertextual reading here. See: “La Trace de L’Autre,” translated by A. Lingis, Tijdschrift voor Philosophie (Sept. 1963).

  33. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1981), p. 103.

  34. Fredric Jameson wages what may sound like a similar complaint about the image-permeation of everyday life in “Transformations of the Image in Postmodernity,” in The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern 1983-1998 (London: Verso, 1998). However, an unconscious residual effect of Jameson’s analysis is a latent melancholia over the loss of authentically autonomous aesthetic experience. It is the philosophic basis of such melancholia that I mean to unpack here by truncating the very dialectic of authentic vs. inauthentic, regardless of whether we are speaking of modernist or postmodernist production.

  35. Ibid., p. 211.

  36. Berger’s visualization of this moment is meant, allegorically, to constitute a critique of historicity rather than a clinical analysis of culture’s general desire. The latter approach would be to align oneself with Jung who, unlike Freud, believed in a collective unconscious.

  37. Again, Adorno addresses the problematic involved in “wiping the slate clean” in Coming to Terms. For questions associated with the spectacular account of historical atrocities, see: Stephen Greenblatt’s introduction to his Learning to Curse (New York: Routledge, 1990). Also see Fineman’s The Subjectivity Effect for a non-dialectical challenge to Greenblatt’s theories.

  38. See Rosalind Krauss’s “A Voyage on the North Sea” Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition, (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999).

  39. Again, Krauss states it best: “One description of art within this regime of postmodern sensation is that it mimics just this leeching of the aesthetic out into the social field in general.  Within this situation, however, there are a few contemporary artists who have decided not to follow this practice, who have decided, that is, not to engage in the international fashion of installation and intermedia work, in which art essentially finds itself complicit with a globalization of the image in the service of capital.”  (ibid. p. 56).