In a short text published in 1963, Theodor W. Adorno gives a succinct analysis of an American pop song entitled 'Especially for you'. The lyrics sound as banal as they are innocent: "Especially for you the birds are singin' / Especially for you the bells are ringin' / Especially for you that's what a moon's for / Especially for you that's what a June's for." For Adorno, however, these empty phrases are pregnant with loathsome paradox. The notion of a 'personal' moon, or month of June, he fulminates, is just as ridiculous as the notion that a pop song - produced and disseminated by various media for the masses - could be addressed to a specific person. Popular music is by definition not made for you but for everyone. 'Especially for you', therefore, reads as a cynical message to the cultural consumer, whose individuality has been reduced to a number and whose taste has degenerated into a hackneyed commercial formula. "By telling the consumer that he has no influence over the product and that the producer takes no more cognizance of his needs than the moon takes of the dog that barks at it, he is meant to realize that he is being mocked. He is made to feel that he is not expected to take the idea of something special seriously, let alone believe in it."
In much the same way, Jan De Cock's project Everything For You (EFY) seems to denounce the degeneration spurred by cultural commodities on the one hand, and the vapid rhetoric promoting these products on the other. The EFY manifesto is based on the premise that cultural consumers are used "as objects, as an ideology for the masses", and that a "correction of the market economy" is therefore needed. De Cock nonetheless concedes, following Adorno, that such a strategy calls for dialectical and even quasi-corrupt methods. Criticism does not operate outside a given system, but occupies and deflects it, just as the 'market corrections' of EFY are conditioned by the sale of sculptures on the same market, where they modify the standards and values on which this system is based, or at least put them under pressure. To achieve this, De Cock's sculptures, like Adorno's writings, invoke the category of 'beauty'. While for Adorno, the notion of 'the beautiful' takes a critical position in relation to the cultural industry and the market, in De Cock's view, beauty needs not only to be rediscovered but also to regain its normative and palliative role, to allow for the genesis of a communal experience that rejects personal preferences. De Cock explains: "We're going to make beautiful things for people, because people are not used to beautiful things any more. So the statement will be: Look very attentively at whatever is beautiful, because there is not much beauty in the world. With the ironic title Everything For You."
But the historical and ideological specificity of EFY reveals itself most notably in its resonance with Adorno's much-discussed concept of artistic autonomy. Whereas for Adorno, the political potential of art lies in its autonomy - that is, in its negation of, and reservations about, social reality - De Cock's work remains ambivalent about this matter. EFY recalls and reinterprets several episodes within art history that explored the relationship between art and life in specific ways. The manifesto, for instance, displays an affinity, in both genre and rhetoric, to the historical avant-gardes: on the one hand, it reflects a commitment to the fusion of art and life (as may indeed be inferred from the title, sculpturecommunism, and the reference to Lissitzky); on the other hand, De Cock urges the preservation of the distinction between aesthetics and politics (as is also the case with Mondrian's work, to which De Cock has often referred in the past). The manifesto's proposition that EFY seeks to be "an aesthetic act that generates social value", but in which the artist at the same time "sculpts something that is different from all other objects", epitomizes this dynamic of heteronomy and autonomy. Besides its reference to the historical avant-garde, however, the exhibition series also manipulates contemporary artistic strategies that engage with this theme. By explicitly working at the fringes of major museums and by temporarily installing sculptures in public space, and photographing them there, he brings to mind artistic strategies from the 1960s and 1970s, in which the art object was suspended between institutional and 'non-institutional' contexts. The distribution of the photographs of these sculptures in free, newspaper-like publications - such as the one you are reading - further emphasizes the artist's intention to ensure the project an afterlife beyond fleeting exhibitions and the singular context of their presentation. EFY thus raises the question: how can the problem of autonomy be defined and safeguarded today, when art is saturated with the logic of the market, both in terms of production and presentation? It is within this context that I want to discuss both De Cock's idiosyncratic use of photography and his rhetoric surrounding the project. What is the relationship between these two aspects of EFY, and how do they relate to Adorno's notion of autonomy?
A production image - exceptional within the photographic series - made during the first iteration of the project in Mexico City and published on De Cock's website, offers an answer. The image shows a typically urban scene - a wide pavement littered with stands selling food and drinks, a few locals, an unremarkable block of buildings - in which, for the occasion, one of De Cock's flamboyant sculptures has been installed. In the foreground stands the artist behind a camera and beside a piece of lighting equipment; in the middleground we see two of De Cock's associates instructing an extra, a few passersby, the aforementioned food and drink stands, and the colorful sculpture; at the back we see a small area of greenery and buildings. The scene is reminiscent of a fashion shoot or a movie set, in which the viewer is allowed a glimpse behind the scenes, as though this might serve to demystify the eventual, staged photograph. The picture shows the genesis of the picture; in this respect it is similar to several well-known photographs of film sets, such as that of Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935), in which an entire landscape was constructed within the studio and the recording apparatus is clearly visible, or that of Rear Window (1954), in which Hitchcock appears gesturing in front of the camera, much like De Cock. Still, in spite of (or possibly thanks to) the 'unmasking' action in the scene of the production image, the meeting between sculpture and public nonetheless seems genuine, or in any case natural. The photograph documents the extras and the sculpture within an emphatically urban framework, which is depicted in full and expresses a 'reality effect': a particular place and a historical moment in which this specific sculpture, and the artistic project as a whole, encountered reality. According to Roland Barthes, such an evocation of the real does not present "the optionally real thing to which an image or a sign refers but the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph." The historical event took place in the production image, ça a été (that has been) as a "superposition of reality and history."
The composition and the effect of the photograph EFY, Mexico City (Two Girls) form a stark contrast to the production shot. While in the latter, the meeting between public and art takes place in an urban space, in the former this space appears to have been flattened, wrested from the spatio-temporal reality that preceded it. As the pavement, streetcar, and blocks of houses are consigned to the margins of the picture, and photographic depth is likewise neutralized by the framing, composition, and lighting, the scene gives the impression of a cluster of props rather than an integrated whole. The photograph conveys only one clear - and crucial - spatial dichotomy: between foreground and middleground, between the detailed sculpture that appears at the lower edge of the image, and the two girls who are looking at the sculpture, but more notably at the camera and the viewer, from a distance. Their penetrating gazes make the viewer conscious of his or her own gaze, reinforcing the confrontation between foreground (camera, sculpture, and following on from there, the viewer) and middleground (the women, the food stands). Aside from the uniform illumination, there is little continuity between these two pictorial levels: whereas the sculpture functions as a collage-like surplus or a frivolous extension of the lens, the women stand 'in the picture' or in the scene, a few yards away from the sculpture. The artificial disjunction between sculpture and the public scene denaturalizes the image and undermines the suggestion of realism that was still convincing in the production photograph.
Most of the photographs in EFY testify to a similar denaturalization. The images appeal to the photograph's fictional power rather than its natural, documentary value. The split between foreground and background, mentioned above, often recurs. Most of the sculptures are not integrated into their surroundings, nor do they interact with the secondary figures in the photographs. Instead, they are obstacles, obscuring the picture: they block our view of a crucial aspect of the scene or the figures (as happens repeatedly in EFY, Mexico City), they are spotlighted too emphatically in comparison to the rest of the image (the near-spectral apparition of a sculpture in front of a Mayan settlement in EFY, Mexico City is a good example), or they constitute inauthentic intrusions into a desolate and frequently suburban landscape (as is the case with most of the sculptures in EFY, Pensemont and EFY, Kwaremont). A second strategy is the subtle evocation of a historical image. For instance, one of the pictures in EFY, Mexico City reinterprets the celebrated photograph in which Vladimir Tatlin's model (which was never executed) for the Monument to the Third International (1919-20) was held up and carried around the streets of Russia in an act of propaganda for the Bolshevik Revolution. Rather than documented reality, the photograph shows a carefully composed image, in which the spiral-shaped sculpture stands for Tatlin's model and the fire-eater in the back represents a demonstrator, recalling the photographic tableau vivant as explored in the work of Jeff Wall. A third denaturalizing effect follows from the narrative or filmic relationship that is suggested between the secondary figures and their surroundings. Examples abound: a boy holding his mother's hand as he walks home from school, a middle-aged, rather simply-dressed woman passing a clothing shop, a woman in a tracksuit, who is waiting for something to happen outside the image, and a group of street musicians standing outside a laundrette - all of these situations can be read as snapshots from a story or a film. The figures and situations are often highlighted as theatrical stills, with an ironic reference to works such as Wall's Mimic (1982) or Philip-Lorca diCorcia's New York (1997). The suggestion of the scenographic also can be seen to reflect De Cock's fascination with film, which has frequently been mentioned and analyzed in the reception of his work.
As these references show, the denaturalization of the image is in line with the postmodern photography of the late 1970s and 1980s. While an earlier generation of artists had stripped photography of every form of narrative and subjective composition - as in the photoreportages of Dan Graham, Ed Ruscha, or Robert Smithson - artists such as Wall, Rodney Graham, Robert Longo, and Cindy Sherman reinstated them. These postconceptual practices adopted documentary strategies that were shorn of realistic effects and rerouted them in the production of constructed or staged images. These images were designed to reflect upon a visual culture dominated by TV and movies; on the way in which advertising images express myth formation and desires; or on the general historicity of the image. On a more art-theoretical level, staged images served to challenge categories such as representation and reality, art and life, often recodified through the notion of simulation. The idea that every image has another image concealed beneath it was crucial to Sherrie Levine's re-photography, the photographic scenes of Wall, and the references to film in the photography of Günther Förg. These practices examined the real circuits of image making - the production, presentation, and dissemination of photography - as much as they warned against the overall becoming-image, or simulation, of reality.
The images of EFY, however, do not propagate simulation. Although the EFY project explores and effectively stimulates the circulation of images, it does not fuse representation and reality, nor converge art and life. Rather, it documents the impossibility of attuning such categories to one another (or in any case, of linking them together in a plausible way). In my view, the split implicit in the denaturalization of the image suggests that the sociability of art is indebted to its distance to, and dissociation from, life. Akin to Adorno's dialectical position, the photographs comment on the social commitment that is inherent to the concept of autonomy. But how should we relate this Adornian ethic to the rhetoric of the artist?
One thing is certain: Jan De Cock would never put it quite like that. His discursive horizon remains constantly, unhesitatingly militant, in line with the manifestos of the historical avant-garde. Responding to a comment about the artificiality of the photographs during a seminar held to launch Everything for You, Otegem, De Cock confirmed that the images had not been doctored, going further to explain that it is up to today's artists to operate optimistically, as activists. When he was asked about the idea underlying the project on the Belgian radio station Klara, he replied loftily: "Well, what I want to try to achieve, single-handedly, is what the people of Occupy Wall Street failed to do - that is, to change the system. That's an enormous responsibility. And I really believe that by making a small rupture, or by holding our breath for a few minutes and making a minimal shift, we could achieve a kind of momentum and set off a chain reaction in our neoliberal system, in which our only resource is within ourselves and in which we are all alone busily consuming mediocre things." In the same interview, the artist likened the EFY project to an 'underground empire' designed to make it possible for him to 'contact people directly', enabling a series of events to take place 'all over the world'.
It is hard, and almost disconcerting, to relate this kind of rhetoric to the more ambivalent strategy expressed by the photographs. There is a contradiction between the direct claim to heteronomy in the rhetoric and the more dialectical, Adornian strategy of the images. Even so, I would argue that these quite blatant contradictions might themselves be recuperated as part of the project. The schism between word and image, between the discourse and photographs, not only reveals a new layer of deduplication and dissimulation within EFY, but also characterizes De Cock's ideological agenda. Adorno and Max Horkheimer state: "Ideology is split between the photographing of brute existence and the blatant lie about its meaning, a lie which is not articulated directly but drummed in by suggestion." Here Adorno and Horkheimer are rephrasing the Althusserian view that ideology is a representation of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence, and that language and fiction are therefore instruments that help us to gain a grip on reality. Divided between photographic strategies on the one hand and a particular discourse on the other, it seems to me that EFY adopts a similar approach to 'fiction'. The problematic nexus of art and life is not 'resolved' but rather 'performed', more specifically as a contradiction between the photographs and what the photographs appear to express. It is this discrepancy between rhetoric and aesthetics, again and again, that symbolizes this friction or mediation - and that ensures that EFY turns up not only in sculptures, photographs, and the manifesto, but also in the artist's interviews and public appearances. For instance, De Cock explained that his participation in De Slimste Mens ter Wereld, a popular quiz show on Flemish TV, was part of his revolution. He took part in the program not with the aim of bringing different kinds of culture together, but actually to pull them apart, and to show how avant-garde artists anticipate or transform reality, strategically avoiding the present moment.
In this sense, De Cock suggests that artistic autonomy should be sought neither within the discourse of the avant-garde (as might be inferred from the genre of the manifesto) nor within neo-avant-garde strategies that disparage the institution of art (as seems to be implied by the positioning and photography of the sculptures in public space). Instead, EFY situates itself, and its plea for autonomy, between the two. The work characterizes artistic autonomy as an ambivalent and ever-evasive 'center' that lies in-between a discourse and its aesthetic manifestation. In consequence, the work does two things: first, it defines the problem of autonomy as a function of aesthetic experience, in which the viewer seeks to connect the different media or genres in EFY with each other, thus rejecting the common tendency in modernist art criticism to define it in terms of the medium or the production. Second, it characterizes autonomy as the negative relationship between the media and genres that appear to be irreconcilable within that experience. As philosopher Juliane Rebentisch rightly observes, this sophisticated concept of autonomy is indebted to the writings of Adorno. It was Adorno who railed against the totalitarian Gesamtkunstwerk in a negative, non-instrumentalizable dialectic, which, in the realm of the visual arts, translated into a historical and conceptual differentiation between genres and media. Rebentisch observes: "The idea of a unification of the arts is problematic in Adorno's eyes not only because it implies a false unity - false because it is inadequate in light of the historical situation - it is problematic also because this unity in all its actual forms has always only been realized as false unity: by power of the mutual subjugation of the means of representation involved." This lesson too can be attributed to EFY. On the one hand, the many references in the work create a historical awareness that links the problem of autonomy to the avant-garde and neo-avant-garde; on the other hand, De Cock describes the fusion of genres as a spurious undertaking, precisely by thematizing and emphasizing the historical and conceptual differences between word and image.
But the discrepancy between rhetoric and aesthetics is also a reformulation of a term that hovers around the project like a spectral presence: utopia. Rather than linking this concept to the idea of communism, the ambivalence noted above characterizes the project's utopian nature in the manner of an oscillation or bifurcation of oppositional and irreconcilable components. The photographs are not consistent with the story, and remain, in a sense, fictional. The sculptures do not appear to be actually located in public space, but withdraw from it; the aesthetics nuance the militant activism. Artistic utopism of this kind has nothing to do with the neutralization of institutional forces, or with detaching art from its historical processes. As the art historian Louis Marin explains, it is rather about confirming "the threshold limiting the inner and the outer, the place where exit and enter reverse and are fixed in this reversal; it is the name for all limits, provided by the thought of the limit: contradiction itself." Marin posits that utopism constantly sets up a dialogue between pinning down and escaping - and in consequence, that utopism is fragmentary and eternal, repetitive and immediate, as if it were related to "the rhythmic cycle of rituals, celebrations and accomplishments . . . whereby each time all of time is uncovered." Strictly speaking, the EFY project is not a ritual, but it nonetheless unfolds within a temporality that is very close to ritual. The installations of sculptures in public space, and even the aesthetic characteristics of the sculptures, evoke the properties of a festival or celebration, which is constantly being repeated in a particular way and at a specific location within the exhibition series. In addition, the project acquires its ultimate temporality through an explicit connection to the artist's oeuvre and the historical allusions explored within it. Thus, recurrent themes such as the monument or cinema are more suggestive of a complex wavering back and forth in time than of a stable temporality, focused on the future, as is often thought characteristic of avant-gardism.
Thus it is hardly surprising that the utopism of EFY has retroactive echoes within the artist's meticulously constructed oeuvre. In 2000, De Cock created Vertigo or the Era of Free Catalogues, a film and installation that evoked Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). More specifically, the work refers to a scene in the movie in which the male lead, a detective with a fear of heights, is given a free exhibition catalogue while he is tailing a woman for a client. De Cock appears to be chiefly interested in the camera technique used to evoke the detective's acrophobia: the vertigo shot or dolly zoom. By moving forward or backward with the camera while zooming in on an object at the same speed in the opposite direction, this technique effects a spatial dislocation of the subject being filmed, which remains at the same distance from the viewer while the surroundings shift to the foreground or background. The result is a kind of visual dizziness that denaturalizes the image, and presents the background, the subjected being filmed, or both, as 'fiction'. The installation - which served as the entrance pavilion to the group exhibition Beeld in Park in Jean-Félix Hap Park, Brussels - translated this effect into a sculptural simulation of dolly tracks with an associated platform, which led to a large cutout in the wall and a view of the park beyond. The result was a room that anticipated the formal language of De Cock's later Denkmäler (Monuments), and that admitted visitors into the exhibition while framing the vista of a walled-off garden. This vista evoked the natural beauty and harmony of nature, but more symbolically it also evoked Arcadia. The installation allegorized a cinematic movement, coming closer and retreating, a simultaneous pinning down and releasing of the subject being filmed, analogous to the vertigo zoom itself.
Almost fifteen years after the Vertigo project, EFY revisits this oscillating movement, this time linked to the idea of communism, and more generally to that of utopia. The detachment of foreground from middleground in the photographs repeats the destabilizing effect of the dolly zoom. Here, the sculpture appears not as a device or as a framing element of scenery, but as the subject that is depicted; and the oscillating relationship with the natural, harmonious atmosphere of the Jean-Félix Hap Park likewise recurs in, and as, Utopia. In other words, it is in EFY that De Cock revisits the utopian potential of earlier works while at the same time relating the present work's potential to the repetitive, cyclical movements of his oeuvre. Utopia is not oriented towards the future; but neither does it focus solely on the present. Rather, it is a vector building on the insights and experiences produced by earlier works - not to reaffirm or consolidate those works, but to develop them further, in a critical relationship to their aesthetic formation.