Neocolonial Parapraxis

An Interview with David Tomas Concerning Live righty, die, die…

This interview was recorded at the Montreal art documentation centre Artexte on April 20, 2012. Live rightly, die, die… is an exhibition based around Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and that looks at the global art world’s imbrication in neocolonial social relations. It was presented at Galerie Dazibao while the gallery was in its temporary location at the Cinémathèque Québécoise. The first part of the exhibition, Part I: Tourism, took place between March 1 and 25, 2012, and Part II: Exoticism took place between March 29 and April 29, 2012.

Live rightly, die, die
David Tomas, details from Live rightly, die, die…, Galerie Dazibao, 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

Marc James Léger: What were your specific reasons for putting together this exhibition?

David Tomas: I noticed that over the last ten or fifteen years there were two phenomena taking place. One is that there is a lot of artwork that has a kind of ethnographic content to it. There is also a lot of documentary kind of work – and there’s also the phenomenon of the biennales and exhibitions of those types. And it seemed to me that there was a question of whether the artist … that there was a question being raised as to whether artists were indulging in a form of tourism, as opposed to a kind of formal anthropology. So I decided to put together a proposal. And the proposal was accepted – to look at tourism and art, but also to look at the exotic, because by importing cultural data from one culture to another you’re creating a situation where the information has a certain kind of content which could be interpreted as an exotic content.

So that’s the premise behind the show, that artists are involved in a form of tourism, but also spectators, going to see shows all around the world – all this is a form of tourism that is being set up. And there was also a question about the cross-cultural transfer of data, or cultural information, from one country to another country, and of course there’s the whole phenomenon of globalization, which creates a situation where artists are involved in what seems to be political activity, of the type that falls into the category of witnessing events, or certain situations, or cultures, and would transfer that information for people in another setting. So the premise behind doing the show is to look at those phenomena and to critique it. That was the initial idea. As the show developed, I was less and less interested in doing a kind of survey show about tourism, about art and the exotic, and I was more interested in creating a situation that would place the spectator in the position of a kind of tourist – in an exhibition designed to destabilize him, or her – as opposed to providing valorized cultural information for the classic tourist who goes to have a look at a monument or whatever. What I was really interested in was trying to create a situation where the spectator would be caught between certain kinds of sentiments or experiences.

As I was working on the exhibition I decided to use Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as the overarching frame of reference. For the two exhibitions, one which was going to be on tourism, and the other on the exotic, I decided to use specific photographs. One is an eighteenth-century handbill for stagecoach travel between London and York. A second is the earliest known documentation of a Linchi slow slicing execution in China. I decided to use those two as reference points and to use the Conrad as the frame of reference. Conrad’s novella, as most people probably know, has a story within a story structure, so it has a reflexive narrative structure about a quest by Marlow to find the elusive Kurtz, who is a colonial trader. So the book is a voyage in itself.

Another premise of the exhibition is that contemporary exhibitions are not necessarily removed from or reflexive about their own historical context of existence. In my view, contemporary existence is predicated on the activities of the nineteenth century, in particular, on the development of technologies of photography, steam travel, railway travel, telegraphy, which accelerated people’s capacity to go from one place to another. So that was another frame of reference for thinking about how the show could develop. Conrad’s novella is positioned right at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. It was published as a serial in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899. The three parts were published together in 1903. It’s a very interesting novel just for the fact of where it’s placed historically. It’s a story about colonialism and I think that given recent events in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, that what it describes is still with us today. So that was another way to contextualize the exhibition, but in a way that’s not obvious. The obvious way would be to contextualize it in terms of contemporary history. I was less interested in doing that and was more interested in contextualizing it in terms of a wider and deeper historical context, which has its origins beyond the nineteenth century. Its origins have to do with Western concepts of progress and so on.

So that was one reason for choosing Heart of Darkness. Another reason is that it’s a voyage, so it can be treated as a form of tourism – not necessarily for Marlow but for the reader. The reader becomes a tourist in the same way that you become a tourist if you’re looking at images like the Linchi photograph, or photographs where the idea of witnessing something is confused with the idea of not having access to it, where you have a vicarious experience that’s mediated. It seemed to me to be an interesting way to address tourism and also to address the concept of the exotic. For a long time the exotic has been framed in a negative way, and I thought that maybe today, because we live in a society that’s obsessed with visibility and certainty, that the exotic might be another way of returning to spaces that were dangerous, unknown and treacherous. Because it’s a dangerous concept today, the concept of the exotic embodies some of those possibilities. So that’s one approach though there were lots of other things going on. The main idea is that artists are involved in a form of tourism today, a sort of goodwill and liberal political stance. But this stance may be just as deceptive as Kurtz’s responses to his environment, which were bundled up in greed, desire for profit, and fascination with the Other – a kind of moral and ethical degeneration which happens at the boundaries of a culture. In some sense, because an exhibition is an artificial environment, or a laboratory, I tried to create a situation where the reader, now the spectator, would have a destabilizing experience.

MJL: The Magritte work Ceci n’est pas une pipe is actually titled The Treachery of Images, or The Treason of Images. Do you ever get confused with what you yourself are doing with the exhibition? I find it very slippery and hieroglyphic. What you’re asking is for us to look at ourselves, essentially. You’re holding up a mirror to the art world. In terms of reading the catalogue essay that you wrote, and seeing the show, and thinking about your work, there is a movement from, on the one hand, trying to conceive of one’s subjectivity within this sort of ‘global complex,’ if you want to call it that, and at the same time seeing all of the things that are in place in term of technologies that go back as far, at least, as the early nineteenth century. 1David Tomas, "Live rightly, die, die... Anatomy of an Exhibition," in Tomas, Live rightly, die, die... A Project by David Tomas (Montreal: Dazibao, 2012) 7-26. And so you have all of these means of transportation and representation to consider and we have to relate this to our activity in this exhibition space. And we have to also in some way recognize Kurtz in ourselves. So there is a strong moral message, but it works sort of like a Magritte image in the sense that as soon as you try to identify yourself in it you want to escape the Kurtz identification. I don’t know if you would agree with this or not, but you seem to be trying to identify a global subject. So the question is how do you create the conditions for global consciousness within a system in which it’s very difficult to not operate? So if you take the e-flux exhibitions, for example, there are all of these exhibitions happening right now, the ones you selected to show among other possibilities, but those you selected as captions, or non-captions, many of them are about political situations and the problems of neoliberal globalization. Yet at the same time they would seem to be the flipside to all of the ‘dark’ aspects of Western neocolonial excursion. So how then does your exhibition work as a kind of post-ethnography?

DT: It could be treated as a post-ethnography. Initially, I think that the images that are presented in the show are treacherous. They’re treacherous for the spectator and I think they were treacherous for me because I was trying together things that were almost incompatible: conceptual art with images of executions, sculptural forms with real and fake copies of works, children’s toys with execution, again. So there are all sorts of questions you could raise, even with a little airplane my daughter made when she was three or four years old – why is it hanging in the ‘exotic’ part of the show? What’s its relationship to all of the other elements in the show? Some relations are more obvious than others, some are easier to assimilate than others. So in a sense I would go so far as to say that the project itself is treacherous, for me, because when I started it I though it was going to be relatively straightforward. As I started to develop the project it became increasingly difficult to a), encompass what I wanted to encompass in a show under a situation and in the conditions of a situation in which it was being produced, and b), I wanted to shift from a ‘show and tell’ to something way more complex about the meaning of tourism today, about the tourism that we experience as opposed to say, the kind of tourism we experience when reading Conrad’s novel, which is, you know, I think completely different. What is the relationship between those two things? What is the real status of artists who are doing work with other cultures under conditions that could be difficult because they think they are doing positive things? Also, as someone with a background in anthropology, I was interested in what it means to go back to concepts like the exotic that don’t fall into the traps of surrealism.

MJL: Could you say more about that?

DT: When I was thinking about the exotic, the first or most obvious frame of reference was surrealism, with its juxtaposition of ethnographic materials. The cubists were also interested in ethnography. I wanted to avoid surrealism’s flirtations with the idea of a kind of ‘augmented’ reality through non-habitual experiences. I wanted to avoid that approach and instead have one that’s based on some of the work I’ve done on transcultural spaces, spaces that are more mutual, which exist sometimes between cultures in places in which a person, for one reason or another, has experiences which tend to loosen them from their habitual cultural frames of reference. In some of these cases there can be lots of violence, or humour, and I think the show tries to move between violence, horror, and humour. There are many elements that are humorous. There are videos that are humorous and things like that, so I was trying to deal with those kinds of issues.

MJL: Are there other kinds of practices that you’re trying to distinguish your work from? For example, people talk as though there is a crisis at this moment in contemporary art, that we’re now beyond the neo-avant-garde, and beyond postmodernism also. So for example, with the October questionnaire on contemporary art, a recurring concept is that decentering is a marker of contemporaneity. 2See "Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary’," October #130 (Fall 2009) 3-124. Decentering, say, from Western sources of authority, so that the global would be a predominant factor for some kind of opening, some kind of possibility beyond the postmodern. I know that in your catalogue essay you mention Documenta 11, but you criticize it, despite its intentions, for nevertheless remaining Eurocentric. Towards the end of the essay you mention your concern about homogenization and the disappearance of difference. Do you see contemporary art’s obsession with the global, and in that sense with a certain exoticism and visibility, being that kind of homogenizing phenomenon?

DT: The institutionalization of contemporary art in its current form and the professionalization of the artist is symptomatic of the homogenization of practices. The exhibition tries to propose something different from the obsession with high production values. One of the questions that I’ve been grappling with for a few years has been the possibility of producing work that’s meaningful, not in terms of the art world, but from a social or political point of view. It’s a very difficult question because so many people are trying to address this in their practice in so many different ways – some more successfully than others I guess.

For me, as someone who comes out of a tradition from the 60s, but who was formed in the 70s, with conceptual art on the one hand, and an interest in politics on the other hand, the question has been, for the last four or five years, maybe a bit more: What kind of work can I do that makes sense to me and for my own historical context, given what’s happening today? One of the really interesting things about the show, based on people’s discussion of it, is that there has been a sort of division as to whether you can consider it to be a curated show or an installation.

MJL: I keep wondering about whether there is a camera lucida or trompe l’oeil technique that you are using in that regard.

DT: No, not directly, but the question is, based on the other shows I curated, Rosika Desnoyers’ show and Tim Clark’s show, and also based on my longstanding interest in technologies of display that go back to the ‘history of science’ stuff that I was doing in the 1970s… One of the things that I like to do as an artist is to do exhibitions on people or things that I’m interested in but that aren’t getting any kind of visibility. That’s a political act on my part I think. I’ve enjoyed it a lot. So when I started this show, I went into it doing exactly the same thing. But in Rosika’s show, already – though not so much in Tim’s show – the relationship between the curator and the artist was starting to get blurred a bit. And I realized, from what people had been saying, that it’s very easy to treat the exhibition as an installation and in fact there are all the elements of my previous installations: text, railway lines, interest in technologies, everything’s there. So, in a sense, the question is whether that exhibition in particular answers the question: What can I do today, as an artist, that makes sense, that is positioned in a way that makes me feel that I’m contributing to some understanding of what’s happening, while trying to avoid certain kinds of traps, which I see around me? In a sense it’s a bit early to assess how successful it was, but from the point of view of someone trying to address a specific question or a series of questions, and trying to avoid certain kinds of obvious answers … and also for the stances within the exhibition itself, they’re not really representing “artists’ work” except maybe in a couple of cases, but are produced as copies of works …

MJL: Except maybe for the videos …

DT: The photographs are originals. Most of them are historical photographs. Richard Hamilton’s “composer” piece is an original work. The videos are original, but beyond that all the text-based, conceptual work from the 70s is all copied.

MJL: Is that so that the artwork can exist on a more equal level as the quote unquote artefactual material?

DT: It comes out of the analysis of the “Four Day Stagecoach to York” photograph of a piece of paper. This isn’t the first time that I’ve done an analysis of an artefact where the relationship between a photograph and another medium is blurred to the extent that you get confused trying to tell the difference, or you get caught in the space between them.

MJL: And so these would be digital scans then?

DT: All of the works were digitally scanned and printed very nicely on a material that is very easy to put on a wall and that is very flat. It allowed me to also expand and contract the size of works, so there is a lot of manipulation of the works and that of course raises questions that put you more in the category of an artist than it does a curator.

So yes, the exhibition has allowed me to clearly understand what kind of work I can do that satisfies some of the questions that I have as to my ability to continue to work as an artist, given my critical position in relation to the institutionalization of art and given the politics of what’s happening in the world – how you situate yourself between these things – and also given my own personal interests in avant-garde culture and avant-garde work, which I still on the other hand see as the frame of reference for the production of contemporary art. Whether people accept that or not, that’s my frame of reference. So the exhibition is a curated exhibition, but it’s spatialized in a way that is very closely related to my reading of space and my interest in how artefacts function in a space, and how media function in a space, which comes out of my experience as an artist.

MJL: You wrote recently in Etc about a shift, if I understand correctly, from a site-specific kind of institutional critique towards a sort of more discursive approach to institutional critique in a broader sense. 3David Tomas, "Dead End, Sophisticated Endgame Strategy, or a Third Way? Institutional Critique’s Academic Paradoxes and their Consequences," Etc #95 (Spring 2012) 23-7. You identify this in the catalogue as the flipside to Kurtz’s “anti-method,” which would be the “excess of method” found today in the university – the production of knowledge and new theoretical paradigms that becomes a motor for knowledge production through which entire societies get “processed.” How would that work in relation to what you’ve talked about as the need for a “meta-discipline,” or as a correlate to what you’ve described elsewhere as a kind of post-photography? 4See David Tomas, A Blinding Flash of Light: Photography Between Disciplines and Media (Montreal: Dazibao, 2004). You locate photography between disciplines but you also say that we can’t simply be satisfied with the multiplication of discourses and that we need some kind of meta-disciplinary approach.

DT: I come from a generation of artists that were liberated by theory, by post-structuralism, screen theory, gender theory, with the death of the subject, the death of the author – all of these things were liberatory. They were used by my generation of artists to critique and liberate ourselves from the institutional parameters that we saw as operating at the time, whether that was in an art school context, or more generally in society, or, for me, less so in the university because I went to university later on in my training. My work from the very beginning was always situated – it’s a long story – in between the history of science, which I took as a master’s degree, and a PhD in anthropology. So it’s always been situated between art, anthropology and the history of science for reasons that were very simple. In the 1970s there were artists who were using ideas from other disciplines in their art in order to produce work that had a certain kind of authority, but they were producing the kind of work that wouldn’t interest people working in the fields they were borrowing from. The classic example is the use of analytic philosophy by artists whose work was not relevant to other philosophers working at the same time, as far as I know. The other interesting point has to do with when I was studying the history of science and anthropology – the questions I was raising had to do with my art practice but the people who were teaching me had absolutely no interest in what I was doing as an artist. They didn’t even bother going to see any of my shows, which I thought was an interesting phenomenon. On the other hand, the type of work I was producing at the time didn’t really interest anyone in the art world, and I think that is where I found myself in a disturbing kind of space…

MJL: A space you cultivated as well…

DT: Yeah, and the space I cultivated since then… I produced work that’s not really considered art, and that certainly wasn’t considered academic, and I’ve continued to navigate that space, both in terms of my writing and in terms of the artwork that I’ve done and I see this exhibition as occupying that space. I think that today, and of course I’m teaching in a university myself, the theory that was liberatory in the 1970s and maybe even into the 1980s, and maybe post-colonial theory in the 1990s, has become oppressive, especially for a generation of artists that don’t have any other reference points. In my generation there were all sorts of other reference points, including the fact that in my case I was brought up with an education in a vocational school and hardly read anything at all, there was the counter-cultural reference of the 60s, but today the references don’t exist for kinds of theory that are being taught in the university. And also the university itself is not the same environment that it was in the 1970s. In fact we’re experiencing something very interesting in Québec because of the student movement here, which is creating an environment where things look as if they’re becoming interesting again in terms of how people are starting to criticize the environment in which they’re living.

MJL: There’s a riot taking place this afternoon! 5See "Salon Plan Nord: Émeute au centre-ville de Montreal," at TVA Nouvelles,. See also "Manifestation" 20 avril 2012 Montreal Palais des Congrès, available on You Tube. [laughs]

DT: And that I find really interesting, but when I direct students I get very concerned about the fact that the theory that they’re learning is starting to produce work that is illustrative of that theory. This happened in the 1970s. There was work that was illustrative of psychoanalysis, systems theory and stuff like that, but I think that today it’s become a real problem. And also the discourse around art no longer pivots around the work – it pivots around the theory. There are all sorts of questions you could raise. This has created a situation in which the work of art is marginal to the actual social production of theoretical knowledge. The fact is that to maintain the social knowledge that is already in place is more important than to critique it and to develop it. Maybe that’s not true in all cases, but I think that in general it’s become a really serious issue – at least for someone who has moved from a vocational to an institutional environment, and who is teaching in an institutional environment, with the frames of reference that I have from the period in which I was formed, which is the late 1960s.

So in that sense I see the exhibition as my answer to the set of questions that I have in mind concerning the status of knowledge today. Can you produce work that’s not going to fit into a theoretical category, where the idea is that you’re moving between disciplines? Is it possible to escape those things or to create environments in which they’re problematized in a way in which you make them slippery, as you mentioned at the beginning? And that’s something that’s been a concern of mine for a long time. For me the exhibition… if I had to do it again, there are things I would change, or things I would add, or make smaller – probably bigger – but on the whole I’m very satisfied with what it represents as something that provides certain answers to the questions that I have in mind. They’re answers that allow me to begin to think about work in a different way and that open up new possibilities.

It’s precisely the fact that, which I think you mentioned before the interview began, that you were disturbed by the exhibition when you first visited it. That’s something that I like a lot as a kind of initial experience. When you’re moving through the exhibition there are two or three different levels – in terms of the materiality, the medium, what you’re reading as an essential experience of the works, versus the contents of the works, and versus the content that comes from the clusters of works – the cluster on maps, how it works, or the cluster on Stanley, and how that works, or the cluster around Apocalypse Now, and also the function of sound… The first part of the exhibition had two sound sources that were very low, so that in fact it was very difficult to actually hear them, whereas in the second part the sound volume is a lot higher. So there was a play with thresholds of audio perception and also visual perception based on whether you are looking from far away or looking at a work close up. There’s one work that was a copy but a copy that has a heightened presence, which is not necessarily relevant to the work. So those are things that I find really interesting in terms of providing guidelines for thinking about future work.

MJL: There’s a situational aspect also based on the fact that the exhibition is being shown at the Cinémathèque Québécoise. So you have a soundtrack from Apocalypse Now that alludes to the space we’re in. As well this site is not far from your office at UQAM.

DT: Those are happy coincidences, due to the fact that Dazibao moved and this temporary space that they got for the exhibit is a very large space, and a very nice space to work in – although when I first saw it I wasn’t sure how I was going to deal with a huge rectangle, which is basically what it is. The original plan was to have the Cinémathèque host a series of films in parallel with the show. The piece’s position in terms of my interest in film also ties in with Dazibao’s mandate as a centre for the image, which originally was a photographic image but has now become a notion of the image that is very complicated. Having the University around the corner, with all of the things I’ve thought about the university and the question of knowledge makes it so that I couldn’t have imagined a better place for this show to be presented. It’s also a more neutral space because it’s a cinémathèque space and it’s not a museum or a gallery space, per se, although they do have exhibitions here. It’s not a neutral space, it’s different – so that I find interesting too.

MJL: I can’t help mentioning the fact that the Los Angeles Times published some images last Wednesday. I don’t know if you’ve seen them. Some American soldiers in Afghanistan were photographed posing with the body parts of Afghani insurgents. This is not exactly the same idea as the Linchi but it’s certainly not very far from your concerns in the exhibition.

DT: I think we live in a period of violence.

MJL: There has been a number of these kinds of images from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Were those in mind when you conceived this exhibition?

DT: Not directly but certainly I looked at the images that were shown in Rolling Stone. In a sense the installation shot of Chris Burden’s Shoot that I took from the Instanbul Biennale – the fact that they put Shoot beside the Eddie Adams photograph I found highly significant because when I was in England in the 60s, I remember watching the Eddie Adams footage on BBC with my parents. And I had never seen it before – I was just watching it, and they had I think a nursery rhyme over it. The absolute shock of seeing the film footage of the Vietcong colonel being executed, and the blood coming out of his head, has stayed with me, actually, since then. So, underlying the exhibition, and certainly the second part, is the idea or the realization that we live in a world that is excessively violent, even if we don’t have access to what’s happening on a daily basis, it remains so. I don’t think that the art world can really escape that and the problem is, if you want to deal with that, how do you deal with it in a way that’s not sensationalized, or used? I tried in the exhibition to confront certain images.

MJL: I kind of read it as an anti-war exhibition.

DT: It is, definitely.

MJL: One of the rare exhibitions in that regard.

DT: It’s anti-war in the sense that parts of it are anti-war, like the grouping around Apocalypse Now. Then there’s the question of cultural violence and what does it mean. People are horrified by the Linchi execution but is it any different from the way we treat people here even though we won’t cut them into pieces in the same way? Or is it any different from machine gun fire from a helicopter or whatever? They’re all blown into bits in any case, so there are all sorts of hypocrisies that I feel our society is involved in – and so there was a bleeding over of that idea of hypocrisy into the question of artists as tourists. And of course hypocrisy is also one of the themes of Heart of Darkness. Underneath all of the hypocrisy of the colonial enterprise. I tried to set up the show in such a way as to lead the spectator to a general set of questions.

MJL: By using the concept of exoticism you sort of risk a kind of neo-Victorianism.

DT: Well yes, that’s the problem. It’s a neo-Victorianism insofar as it’s the question of the Other as it was originally stated, as opposed to having gone through post-colonial theory and theories of the subject. It’s really a return to a crude concept of the Other, with the idea that it’s possible to use that concept today in a way that allows me to ask a different set of questions. There is a danger of doing that, of returning the concept to the way it was used in the nineteenth century, and so I tried to avoid the sense of exoticism that’s tied to nineteenth-century anthropology and colonization, by trying to deflect it a little bit through wonderment.

MJL: Yeah, but if in your relational approach nineteenth-century technologies can be contemporary, then so can nineteenth-century sensibilities and moral frameworks.

DT: Of course.

MJL: There’s always this weirdness you get from seeing Victorian carte de visite or stereocards of conflicts like the Spanish-American war. These images were for edification but they were also for entertainment and amusement and in this sense we have our own kinds of contradictions to deal with but that are harder to recognize.

DT: I agree with you. The idea is to transpose that to today but without buying into it.

MJL: Do you think they bought into it, the Victorians?

DT: I think that their concept of the Other was riddled with contradictions. It’s about the exotic but it’s bound up with all sorts of moral questions, sexual fantasies, concepts of cultural superiority, and I think that clearly we haven’t escaped the nineteenth century at all if you think of what’s been going on in Afghanistan. However, what I wanted to do was not to try to make a crude political statement out of it. I wasn’t interested in saying “okay, this is what I think about the world,” you know, “how bad it is.” I was trying to open up spaces in ways that could destabilize the spectator, so they could situate themselves but without having the frames of reference that they normally have.

That was one thing. Then the use of e-flux announcements was to send them off to different parts of the world within the idea of tourism or the concept of the exotic, so that they could see that those exhibitions also function in that way. Anyone sitting behind a computer screen today can see information on exhibitions about China, or India or South America.

MJL: It gives you a false sense of knowing what’s happening around the world.

DT: Yes, but it also gives you the idea of difference. That’s another way that I used the e-flux pieces.

MJL: You made a statement in your catalogue essay that says something about the potentiality of the avant garde having come into existence in the sense that the separation between art and life has disappeared. Do you see that in terms of something like a cultural studies approach to representation, or do you see that differently? Because cultural studies sort of does away with art and eighteenth-century aesthetics.

DT: I think that there is a distinct possibility that art as a discipline is disappearing and is being absorbed into visual studies. People who are being formed in visual studies have dual personalities. They will on the one hand publish text-based material and on the other hand produce visual works – so therefore the artist as previously conceived will no longer exist and the artist will become an academic with a dual personality. However, the dominating matrix is the theoretical process as opposed to the initial impulse, and so there’s an academicisation of the artwork and the artwork becomes simply an extension of the theory. And in that sense the artist as previously conceived will no longer exist. In that sense the distinction between art and life returns to the problematic of the avant garde, or will become instrumentalised insofar as the university becomes instrumentalised, and then the life question, insofar as it produces certain kinds of visual products, will be reformulated in such a way as to absorb those visual products in terms of the productive components of society.

MJL: It’s not very far from Adorno and Horkheimer, then, if you look at it in terms of culture industry – the ideas that yes, the distinction between art and life has been sublated, but on the terms of capitalist industry. So do you think we’re now simply at a more complicated level of the same culture industry assessment, or perhaps better understood in terms of something like Foucauldian biopolitics of Deleuzian societies of control?

DT: I think that insofar as the university is subjected to specific economic and social demands, and insofar as it’s being interfaced with things like media art, I think that yes, it’s an extension of that thesis. But there was always the possibility that art, in terms of the avant garde, and in terms of early twentieth-century notions of the artist as anti-social and anti-institutional, up until recently, that was still alive and a possibility. Art is now trapped I think between institutions, the universities that form artists, on the one hand, and the art world, which is dominated by auction houses and very powerful galleries that evaluate art as commodities. So art is a commodity that has a certain tangibility with a built-in model of what the artist is – someone who makes things by hand, etc – and that is the type of work that a spectator would expect in order to have a pleasant existence, for the most part.

MJL: An interesting existence.

DT: Well, in the sense that there are some very sophisticated collectors who will collect almost anything. They’ll pay almost anything to have whatever they want. So the social functions that are built into certain kinds of artworks – antisocial functions, or the possibility that a work of art would actually force you to think things through in a radical fashion – are severely limited. On the other hand, the whole problem of the formation of artists in special PhD departments of course allows us to take on social science methodologies to produce artworks, and where the idea of theory becomes a primary frame of reference…

MJL: Well, you’re taught it and so you’re expected to know it, but if you exercise it you can be severely disciplined.

End of tape.


  1. David Tomas, "Live rightly, die, die... Anatomy of an Exhibition," in Tomas, Live rightly, die, die... A Project by David Tomas (Montreal: Dazibao, 2012) 7-26.
  2. See "Questionnaire on ‘The Contemporary’," October #130 (Fall 2009) 3-124.
  3. David Tomas, "Dead End, Sophisticated Endgame Strategy, or a Third Way? Institutional Critique’s Academic Paradoxes and their Consequences," Etc #95 (Spring 2012) 23-7.
  4. See David Tomas, A Blinding Flash of Light: Photography Between Disciplines and Media (Montreal: Dazibao, 2004).
  5. See "Salon Plan Nord: Émeute au centre-ville de Montreal," at TVA Nouvelles,. See also "Manifestation" 20 avril 2012 Montreal Palais des Congrès, available on You Tube.


Marc James Léger is an independent scholar based in Montreal. He is editor of the collected writings and interviews of Bruce Barber in Performance, [Performance] and Performers (YYZBBOKS, 2007) and Littoral Art and Communicative Action (Common Ground, 2013). He is also editor of Culture and Contestation in the New Century (Intellect, 2011) and The Idea of the Avant Garde – And What It Means Today (Manchester University Press, 2014). He is author of Brave New Avant-Garde (2012) and The Neoliberal Undead (2013), both published by Zero Books, as well as Drive In Cinema: Essays on Film, Theory and Politics (Intellect, forthcoming, 2015).

David Tomas is an artist, anthropologist and writer. His production in the visual arts has its roots in a post-1970s critique of conceptual art’s disciplinary infrastructure. For the last forty years, Tomas’ work has explored the nature and functions of different forms of knowledge that are produced at the interface of the history of contemporary art, the history and the anthropology of media and the cultures and transcultures of imaging technologies. He has exhibited in Canada, the US and Europe and has held visiting research and fellowship positions at the California Institute of the Arts, Goldsmiths College, and the National Gallery of Canada. He is the author of several books, including Transcultural Space and Transcultural Beings (1996), A Blinding Flash of Light: Photography Between Disciplines and Media (2004), Beyond the Image Machine: A History of Visual Technologies (2004), and more recently, Escape Velocity: Alternative Instruction Prototype for Playing the Knowledge Game (2012) and Vertov, Snow, Farocki: Machine Vision and the Posthuman (2013).