Time, Object, Commodity
From the time it takes to learn to make, to the time it takes to make, to the time that an end product remains on exhibition or in storage – the organization of time around discrete works is an essential element of value-formation in the field of art. Today, everyone from exhibiting institutions to viewers to collectors have come to accommodate dematerialized and time-based art forms. And these are often based on some sort of contract – be it a written document commensurate to the work itself or a tacit agreement leading to and determining the nature of a performative exchange.
As conceived by Diedrich Diederichsen, value is not only determined by the amount of time invested in production, but also in terms of the investment of our – the art world’s – time in reception and participating. This is the social contract that we, as acting members of this landscape with vested interests and time invested in our own production as individuals, have entered into with the subject of our attention. Works of value, however, must also evade identification as a commodity, and thus easy consumption, in order to retain purchase on our continued attention.
Let’s imagine an object, beyond its physical existence, as the more or less durable recording or storage of all those processes in time that were required for its production. When Robert Morris made a technical recording of the sound of making an object and then incorporated the recording in it, he limited himself to the acoustic traces of the manual production of a wooden box (“Box with the Sound of Its Own Making”, 1961). But of course, the time someone spent learning the skills required for such craftsmanship is likewise part of the time crystallized in the object. So an object “contains” not only the time it took to produce, but also the time it took to produce the producers and, if we want to be precise, even the time it took to produce the institutions that produced the producers, though prorated, needless to say, in proportion to the time it took the producer to make this object as a fraction of all the other time he or she spent applying the skills once acquired elsewhere and to other purposes. For the present discussion, we will limit ourselves to the time that people spent with material – and the material likewise has its historical and geological, its biological and cosmic time. Our interest, however, is in the time that may be exploited, and that is labor time.The arts know three primary methods of making objects in this sense. The first would be the technical recording of a practice such as music or dance that’s not in and of itself object-oriented. A sound or image recording is taken that is, in a certain way, an object-like product of a time-based artistic activity; beyond merely being contained in the object, that activity may even reproduced or read out from it (not without some degradation, needless to say). It has long been possible to process these recordings further, to montage and layer them. That would mean crossing back to the side of sculptural operation, whose temporal dimension, as a time of montaging and layering, doesn’t lend itself to being read out.
That’s because, in the second method, the object is the end product of a purposive activity that, unlike the sound recording or the video documentary, cannot be brought back to life once production is complete. One example would be a sculpture. Writing musical scores is an activity of this sort as well, since it’s not its own temporal dimension that will subsequently be read out; only the temporal dimension of a performance implementing the instructions of the score may be read out using the first method. But one may spend a lifetime working on a ten-second composition. The third – and least object-like – method is the product of artistic learning processes in living people such as musicians or actors – body memory, memorization, mastery of techniques, symbols, thought styles. This method, that is to say, represents a sort of living abstraction: Acquired knowledge abridges previously time-consuming activities, but only after the individual has invested time in learning, time during which he or she learned to abstract from the time-consuming activity. Only institutions of the dissemination of knowledge and skills turn the latter into something stable and object-like that’s passed on.
Yet there is another, a fourth form of producing an object that contains works of art and/or the time required for their production. That would be the juridical form. I define a part of the time, or the entire time, the work requires as the object of an agreement and an action regulated by law or stipulation. More particularly, I define by way of agreement and legally binding obligation the future time, the possible fates of the recording of past time, however the latter is made. It has turned out that even living people and fragile situational constellations involving humans and other participants may be contractually defined, represented, and determined in forms that are fairly object-like. Needless to say, that’s a popular means of production in contemporary art – from Yves Klein to Tino Sehgal.
All four types of objects or aggregations of past time and labor time have in common that they are the ontological and material basis making it possible for the time spent on their production to become compatible with the commodity form. All four types of transformed time may in turn be exchanged for money, which may subsequently indeed be said to read out time. It’s well known that time may be bought, most immediately the time of others; our own time we can buy only indirectly. Only then does the concept of storage make sense; only money (and, with a great deal of constructive effort, exchange) makes the storage medium render back what was put into it: Time.
Time bought but not adequately paid for (which is to say, time paid less for than the entrepreneur may subsequently realize by reselling it in a different form) is a familiar part of everyday life in capitalism: Surplus value would not come into existence without this use of living people selling their time. Due to the relative predominance associated with the commodity of the exchange value over the use value in capitalist societies, certain methods of transferring, aggregating, and storing time are superior to others in the eyes of the exchange-value pragmatist – methods, such as money, that abstract as much as possible from differences between the objects. That’s not to say that eccentric aggregate phases could preclude exchangeability altogether; still, exchange-value pragmatism by and large tends toward abstraction, and so has generated not only money but also container ships and – the white cube. Both represent lesser stages of abstraction than money, but they point in the same direction.
With the white cube, objects of the second type, which is to say, spatially extended things of all sorts, may be symbolically stacked on its inside, just as the containers of the container ship make it possible to stack the contents of the containers. In one case as in the other, the contents become equivalent in a sense. But it’s only with the extended model of the objectivation of time in art production, which, just as material objects aggregate past time, turns the past and future time stipulated in juridical objects into stackable art, that the current expansion of the commercial exploitation of artistic production appears on the horizon. There is still money in the private-sector economy of the visual arts, and those who spend this money just as privately have gradually learned to recognize and appreciate non-object-like “objects” as no less suitable and exchangeable storage media of living labor time. By contrast, the business model of the multiplicative reproduction of recordings has distinctly suffered from the digitalization of its environment. The physical storage media of skills and abilities, for their part, suffer from the scarcity of government dough and the consequent devitalization of the educational institutions and venues for music, dance, performance art, theater, and so on. So both forms of objects will probably play diminished roles in the future, whereas the white cubes – including those white cubes camouflaged as something else called a project – and the binders with contracts look forward to a great future, because they assemble objects on which private individuals spend money (and which they may also liquidate again, perhaps to spend on prestigious urban architecture that bears their own name) and because they depend neither on paying audiences nor on technical reproduction or public funding. That’s true even though works of art that take the form of a contract rarely reveal their status as objects – or do so at most with a nostalgic nod to Conceptual Art, to whose administrative aesthetic we indeed owe several techniques of the contractual form.
It may be objected that collectors collect what is rare or of rare quality, and not what took a lot of work to make. But no – they collect what took a great deal of work, qualitatively and quantitatively – to make, with the right mixture between good artistic work and the work of classifying good art. Value comes into being through human labor. That’s no less true of the value of the rare object. Nothing is absolutely rare; what is rare is so as something that must be regarded as culturally relevant. The idea of rarity conceived as absolute merely covers up another activity, one that’s highly specialized and therefore used to be expensive; the activity of ascribing relevance – of distinguishing relevant from irrelevant rarity. Because everything is rare, even the dirt under my fingernails, only rich Mr. Suckercleaner, PhD, the highly educated waste manager, doesn’t know yet that he needs a contract that assures him of the rights to this dirt; because no ascriber of relevance, or even better, chain of ascribers of relevance, has explained it to him. What I’m getting at isn’t the old Philistinism that the status of art is nothing but a scam in which intellectual gasbags sell lemons to credulous well-heeled clients. On the contrary. This selling of lemons and this ascription of relevance are not haphazard operations. They must refer to qualities that are verifiably present. But by bringing some meaningful order to the confusing mass of objects being produced, they put a sort of finishing touch on these art commodities. And this operation is becoming ever more important and more expensive; it’s ultimately responsible, even more than the activities of the notorious assistants, for ensuring that prices rise and profit margins rise faster still – because this highly specialized operation is something you and I almost always do for free. Not primarily when we write an article or give a lecture, that’s merely the official fringe of our relevance-ascribing production, but most importantly in the places where, and to the degree to which, we are the art world. It’s not so much the experts who ascribe relevance to the art objects, but much rather the visible presence of beautiful, important, authentic, and otherwise desirable living people at parties and in social networks associated with the production and presentation of art. In the age of the contract, our activity is becoming even more significant, because, like so many components of contemporary production, and contemporary cultural production in particular, it’s deregulated. Contracts can capture the results of deregulated relations without having to determine the processes themselves.
Within the arts, higher degrees of abstraction are known by another name – progress. That’s not just a fallacy. With the contractual form, infinitely complex and far-reaching objects or processes may be defined as coherent entities that no physical format, no form could ever contain. But what is crucial is that works of art add something, a counterweight, to their compatibility with the commodity form, however inevitable the latter of course always also is; add a counterweight to in that they cannot be read out at will, that there is something concrete about them that dialectically recaptures the abstraction. This concrete something must relate to the recipients and to their time. Money may in most cases be read out only as the time of others, whose labor and time spent on it is being bought. Aesthetic experience, by contrast, relates to its own time and its openness, and not to the openness of a juridical form that’s moreover increasingly losing its other storage formats. Once these other models of time storage will have been utterly devalued and liquidated, the temporal forms of reception will atrophy as well. Nothing will then remain of the great artistic freedom the contractual form seems to afford but the juridical framework and the coherency it enables – the task of lending it relevance will ultimately be up to its dry parsings, on the one hand, and on the other hand to grand DeMille-style productions staging as much human and art world material as possible.
Thanks to Tom Holert for a conversation on contracts.
(Translation: Gerrit Jackson)