The Turntable and the Museum

July 26, 2007

Continuing to worry various genealogies of art and writing after WWII. . .

Perhaps a good example of the backstory to Anderson’s backstory of postmodernism would be the sculpture, or archi-sculpture, of Felix Schramm, who currently has a show up at the San Francisco MoMA. It’s impossible to look at Schramm’s installation and not think of the work of Gordon Matta-Clark and, later, Rachel Whiteread, artists for whom explorations of spatiality were always hitched to an “extra-formal content,” to a polemical engagement with the forces of urban renewal (that is, displacement of the poor) and gentrification (the reproduction of the rich) which are the complement to market-liberalization and the hyper-liquidity of capital in the 70s, 80s and 90s, leaving in its wake extra-urban containers for the poor and a bumper-crop of condos and kitsch emporia for nostalgic hipsters (a.k.a. The East Village/Williamsburg/ Silverlake/The Mission District).

Misfit 2005/2006

House 1992

House 1992

And yet, despite the formal homologies, there is no institutional critique in Schramm, no tension between his wrecked planes and the mesh of museographic prose to which they accommodate themselves perfectly. His is a false negativity. Negativity is applied like a lacquer to the surface of an essentially constructive drive. That is, what appears to be the work of breaking and cutting, what appears as, say, an embryonic architectural concept foundering upon the sterile space of the museum (having, perhaps crashed through its roof and into the galleries which eventually healed around it)—all of this is the simulacrum of disaster: the walls of the gallery, and the painted, jointed planes of drywall and plywood are assembled in one continuous, constructive process. It is a perfect homologue for speculative capital’s “real subsumption” of the essentially negative flows of an oppositional, militant art. It is beautiful: the essentially aestheticized picture of disaster capitalism where the quotient of pleasure to be had represents the profits extractable fro tragedy and atrocity. This is, of course, the capital that so any want or need to think of as having let 9-11 happen, the capital that did let Katrina happen, and that is letting the deathtolls mount in Iraq and Afghanistan because, spectacular YouTube democracy notwithstanding, it plays right into its hands. In this, perhaps, the falseness of Schramm’s work is truthful. Whither negativity?

And so, Adorno, in Aesthetic Theory, on modernism’s last gambit:

At the center of contemporary antinomies is that art must be and wants to be utopia, and the more utopia is blocked by the real functional order, the more this is true; yet at the same time art may not be utopia in order not to betray it by providing semblance and consolation. If the utopia of art were fulfilled, it would be art’s temporal end. Hegel was the first to realize that the end of art is implicit in its concept. That his prophecy was not fulfilled is based, paradoxically, on his historical optimism. He betrayed utopia by construing the existing as if it were the utopia of the absolute idea. Hegel’s theory that the world spirit has sublated art as a form is contradicted by another theory of art to be found in his work, which subordinates art to an antagonistic existence that prevails against all affirmative philosophy. (32, trans. Hullot-Kentor)


This is the story that Jameson clarifies in “’End of Art’ or ‘End of History’?” Instead of the reign of a stable political order, in which the world spirit found its home philosophy, what we got was a philosophically-charged modernism in opposition to the horrors of modernization. But of course, this art was premised on the existence of an outside to modernity, whether the leading edge of a revolutionary future, or the residues of a pre-capitalist past of aristocrats and rural peasantry. None of that exists anymore, except in a simulated, sublated form, if you believe Jameson, but it did continue to linger on through WWII. What is left then, for late modernism, modernism that has missed its chance, is this dictum of Adorno, perhaps the central premise of all of Jameson’s work on SF:

Art is no more able than theory to concretize utopia, not even negatively. A cryptogram of the new is the image of collapse; only by virtue of the absolute negativity of collapse does art enunciate the unspeakable: utopia. In the image of collapse all the stigmata of the repulsive and loathsome in modern art gather. Through the irreconcilable renunciation of the semblance of reconciliation, art holds fast to the promise of reconciliation in the midst of the unreconciled: This is the true consciousness of an age in which the real possibility of utopia— that given the level of productive forces the earth could here and now be paradise—converges with the possibility of total catastrophe. (32-33)


I hope that I never fail to feel the frisson of truth in reading that last sentence, truer now than ever. But where, where do we find such a dialectical image today? In Gordon Matta-Clark, there is always a utopian aftertaste, the back-propagation of the beautiful in the rearing up of the sublime, a negative aperçu. The conical cuts of Office Baroque, for instance, offer a kind of topological solution to the Gordian knot of a totally administered life in the bland sodium lighting of the spectacle. With Matta-Clark, you are always looking through to something, however inadequate one’s own proprioception is providing a set of useful bearings. Those shafts of light in the earlier cuts were able to manage a diagonal solution to the false antinomy of irony/sincerity.

Conical Intersect, 1975

Office Baroque, 1977

If, to quote DeKooning, in those works “content is a glimpse,” at least there is content. Not so in Schramm. Nor in the similarly emptied, formalized work of Franz Ackermann. The cutting of the Gordian knot is, in fact, another way of binding it.

Evasion V



Instead, opposition has turned back on itself, been abstracted, walled off, become form. Perhaps, to look at this work generously, this walling off functions in order to preserve it cryogenically for resuscitation in the advent of political movement. Ungenerously, this is nothing less than its murder. In the most powerful work in the Schramm show, a kind of sculptural chimera, half piano, half interior design, lies on the floor, preserving in its hollow a record player on which, punctured an inch from its true center, a record plays in varying ellipses, cutting across the grooves of the music. For me, it is difficult in looking at this not to think of Guy Debord’s The Naked City, where the slicing of a map of Paris allows for its reassembly via variously suggestive arrows. I think of this because of resonant puns in this work. For Debord, The Naked City was “an illustration of the hypothesis of psychogeographic turntables.” These plaques tournantes describe “the spontaneous turns of direction taken by a subject moving through these surroundings in disregard of the useful connections that ordinarily govern his conduct.” In his détournement of the term for a railway turntable, it’s difficult not to hear, once it’s translated into the English, the rallying cry of early hiphop and its basic instrument, the turntable which (once it’s doubled) makes musical consumption coterminous with musical production.

The Naked City, 1957

But in Schramm, all of this is present only as revenance and echo (and here it’s difficult not to think of K-Punk’s stimulating thinking about hauntology): a fragment of analog equipment from another age that can sing only of its depoliticized, desocialized impotence, vinyl fetishes be damned.