If Modernism still sought to postulate a notion of abstraction that was meant to be based on the idea of aesthetic self-reference, abstraction under the conditions of post-Fordism and of immaterial production can be conceived of as a category involved in all areas of society. Influenced by the paradigm of information in the post-war era, abstraction was increasingly recoded as design – as the manipulation of technologically produced surface phenomena, which correspond with the deterritorialization of capital under the banner of globalization and with a biopolitical logic that aims at the productivity of an aesthetically stylized life.
Artists such as Liam Gillick and Tobias Rehberger no longer address abstraction as the principle for the creation of distinct minimalist objects, but rather try to create through design spaces for open social interaction, whose actual use is to be constantly redefined within the situation of the exhibition – without necessarily producing relational-aesthetic models of community. Considering a notion of abstraction thusly reformulated, would a redescription of that which is commonly subsumed under the term “social art” be appropriate? And what can “abstract” art under the current conditions of electronic media networks and design actually mean?
It is January 2008, and the latest trend in the world of publishing is the subject of some newspaper debate. These days, apparently, more and more authors and publishing houses are posting so-called book trailers on YouTube: movie-style clips that visualize the key elements of a book’s narrative through a fast-paced mix of still and moving images set to booming music and voice-overs. In fact, the only thing to tell the viewer that this is a book trailer and not the trailer for a film or a television mini-series is the tendency to here and there show glimpses of printed pages, illustrations and cover designs. Authors are easily confused with actors: in the trailer for “The Shirt Deal”, a perky Stephen J. Cannell walks through the fictional “set” of his mystery novel as he recounts its plot, his “author look” no doubt part of the set design program.
As far back in media time as 2004, an exhibition project by Liam Gillick apprehended this deft merge of previously separate media realms. Expanses of dirt brown carpeting, molded into heaps and folds, created a sort of landscape in the Micheline Szwajcer gallery in Antwerp, but this just seemed to be the setting for the key event. At the far end of this carpet-landscape a 7-minute trailer for the updated version of French sociologist Gabriel Tarde’s 1896 science fiction novel “Underground (Fragment of Future Histories)” was displayed on a 1969 Brionvega Cuboglass television set. 
At first glance it seemed like a straightforward promotional event: a book had been published; now the sales apparatus was activated. But this event was also a work of art. In fact, it was a work whose penchant for obliqueness or hermeticism opened a dialogue with the question of abstraction in art as well as with the notion of the increasing abstraction of social relations under late capitalism (according to Theodor Adorno, the reality to which abstract art responds). The objects of Adorno’s analysis were quite literally all present: on the one hand a literary text — an instance of human creativity and reflection — captured by the promotional logic of the culture industry. And on the other hand the cubes, rectangles and squares of high modernist abstraction — only this time domesticated as stylish design objects for social usage, apparently devoid of all potential for radical transcendence. The radically cubical Brionvega TV set was one such object, as were the shiny new examples of Gillick’s so-called “discussion platforms”, the minimal-style canopies of aluminum and colored Plexiglas that seem to furnish so many of his installations.
And yet, this work’s specific brand of obliqueness breaks with the very terms of abstraction presented above. Its own forms or strategies of abstraction should, first of all, be understood as situational or site specific. The site it brings forth is nothing less than the new world of total design, the intensified processes of “life-aesthetics” or self-styling that form the basis for the specific alignment of governmental and capital interests in contemporary biopolitics and its post-Fordist forms of production. The work should then be seen as an intervention in the elusive continuity between artistic, aesthetic and social forces established by a politics that capitalizes on mental and bodily processes, the forces of sensation and affects. And in turn its insistence on obliqueness may be seen in terms of the revised understanding of dominance and resistance that comes with this politics.
The updating of Gabriel Tarde’s sociological/fictional novel had been done by Gillick: in a conscious decision to “support” the logic of globalization exemplified by the 1904 English translation (and so not even consulting the French original), a few minor changes to this text were made. Mentions of cinematography — the big novelty in Tarde’s days — were for instance systematically exchanged with “video”. But Gillick’s updating also pertained to the design solution for the book. Now this vintage piece of utopian imagination was framed by his habitual play with colorful modernist/constructivist style languages, complete with sans-serif typeface all through the main text — as if to underscore the essential “modernity” or “actuality” of Tarde, the basic requirement for his commodification. The final book product was displayed on one of the carpeted heaps: the room was, in fact, an elaboration on the concept of the stylistically apposite book fair stand or press conference environment.
The question was only what this environment was actually supposed to promote or present. At first glance the book trailer basically seemed to animate the book design, rather than any narrative the book might contain. The glossy black cover was dominated by a pattern of thick pastel colored lines that might easily be interpreted as beams of multicolored light moving through dark space. And on the TV screen similarly luminous multicolored text fragments from the book danced their little dance to midi-files of medieval-sounding flute music — much the way graphic design on TV generally ballets around in honor of some coming attraction (as in the intro to any news show). But “design” did not stop there. For here even the TV-apparatus was a highly conspicuous style icon, chosen as if to support the style of both book and trailer. Entirely cubical and encased in shiny metallic on every side except one, the Brionvega is advertised by one of its purveyors as “more than a television set” since “when it is off it is hard to know what exactly it is”. It is therefore also an “absolute clear sign”, “desirable even before you know what it’s used for”.  In fact, the TV set used to display Gillick’s book trailer had all the hermetic glamour of the 1960’s minimalist cubes — the objects that were at once the epitome of modernist abstraction and instances of the same abstraction turned inside out, transformed into a projective space of social relations.  By the same token the Brionvega also evoked all its ambivalent connections to the world of interior design, the moment when Minimal Art slides into minimal style, when the most radically impersonal art objects in history turn into signifiers of personal taste. This is, incidentally, also the moment where the conveyor belt model of industrial mass production evoked by minimalist serialism and standardization, seemed to give way to a post-industrial production of subjectivity that is largely driven by media-apparatuses: the Brionvega quite simply seemed fraught with all these social/aesthetic shifts. Which is probably why it was used for this particularly slick exhibition display-cum-media event, alongside Gillick’s minimal-style “discussion platforms”. Under the lamp-like halo of color they produce (this time dirt-brown to match the carpet) discussion or socializing of some sort is supposed to take place — an activity that is, however, never actually realized. Again, what seems to count is the evocation of the shift from the transcendent abstraction of classic modernism to the immanence of today’s social or relational art practices, the supposed immediacy of “interaction”, “exchange” or “togetherness”. Yet, in the end, it is precisely the meaning of “the social” that is contested with Gillick’s operations of abstraction.
Put together, all these design elements, each of them essentially hermetic, each somewhat absurdly layered on top of each other, make up what might be called a style site. By a style site I mean an artistic production that presents conspicuous stylistic phenomena not as a trait of some artistic signature, nor as an indicator of the artist’s desire to merge the fields of art and design, but as an object of articulation in its own right. If this is possible it is mainly because style here is presented as a point of social crisis or complexity — in fact as a “question of style” that pertains to specific social sites. On a general level, such questions of style may be discovered wherever relations between appearance, recognition and social identity are opened up — that is, whenever one tackles the difficult issue of unforeseen appearances, social phenomena that have yet to be identified. Style site works could then be seen as a variant of site-specific practices in art, mainly related to the way such practices tend to distance themselves from formalist and historicist approaches to art.  For while style is obviously a key “question” in art historical writing, it is still mainly handled in terms of predetermined appearance or constant form — an effect of the categorizing concerns of this discipline.  In contrast, Walter Benjamin read Jugendstil as a symptom of the paradoxes connected with the efforts to give a recognizable public “face” to modernity: in his work Jugendstil is then less a “period style” than a social site.  Today, the question of the unforeseen social appearance is so to speak an inbuilt feature of the biopolitical logic of style: the desire-element in life-styling is linked to the promise of escape from definable forms of subjectivity, the notion of open-ended becoming. And so the “question” of the contemporary style site could be seen to turn around processes of desubjectivization.
This may be the reason why Gillick’s promotional work seems to obstruct access to the idea of what exactly is being presented or promoted. Instead, design appears as a quasi-autonomous object of reflection that runs in tight loops around itself. Displayed on an iconic piece of “design technology”, the book trailer is foregrounded as a format, a matter of design solutions, which in turn presents the idea of the book as an object residing within the precisely designed framework of a promotional space. It is the almost hysterical over-determination of style factors in Gillick’s work, their lack of definitive grounding, that brings out a sense of style as question or crisis of appearance, that is, as a social site. Through this operation it becomes abundantly clear that style, here, is not just a trait that adheres to some defined project or object, whether “artistic” or utilitarian, but is itself seen as a sort of productive machine. While most site-specific artworks open onto social practices not primarily associated with the realm of art or else with the institutional frameworks of art production and display, this work seems, rather, to play off art’s imbrication in the contemporary production of open-ended subjectivity.
And the significance of media apparatuses and technologies for this production — in particular the real-time technologies that seem to mime the dynamic flow of human memory and perception itself — may perhaps account for the emphatic association between style and televisuality in Gillick’s work. 
However, in this style conundrum, the social ideas presented in Gabriel Tarde’s fiction are not lost: they are activated, and their specific mode of utopian imagination constitutes a force that will have to be accounted for. In fact, this is where we may really start to unravel the strange connection between “sociality” and “obliqueness” in Gillick’s work. “Obliqueness” was a term used by Gillick himself when trying to place this type of work within the expanding and increasingly controversial catalogue of “social” art — more specifically its distance to the more transparent or hands-on approaches of much activist or community-oriented artwork.  In this last category, the question of representation often seems to play a critical role: the question of how, or through what artistic/strategic means, specific groups, communities, issues and interests are represented or formalized. In contrast, works such as Gillick’s seem to leave the very framework of representation behind: with its apparently free associations between visual, spatial, textual, mediatic and temporal elements, its purported sociality cannot be mapped or located as one delimited or familiar “object”, the way a community, an issue or an institution can.
It is therefore tempting to interpret its strategies as a specific form of artistic abstraction. But again, this specific operation differentiates itself from the type of scenario in which economic abstraction is seen as the root form of all abstraction, so that the differentiating, qualitative potential of individual sensation is understood to be systematically turned into a quantifiable economic potential, a process that goes hand in hand with new forms of political instrumentality. For one thing, to accept this framework of analysis would also be to accept the fundamental problem that haunts this particular conception of abstraction. As Tim Black has pointed out, Adorno’s denunciation of a world reduced to the abstract quantities of exchange relations may have been exemplified with reference to modern capitalism, but in actuality his analysis of reification, or the tendency to identify things with their conceptual abstraction (and thus also with their potential for exchange), moves as far back in human history as primitive animism and can not be said to be derived from capitalism specifically. In “The Dialectics of Enlightenment” this impulse towards conceptualization and abstraction is understood to originate in the need to protect oneself from the random brutality of nature.  But if it is basically the human capacity to symbolize that is the problem, Adorno’s notion of abstraction is not only a superbly formulated instance of the specifically modernist distrust of all forms of representation. It is also, by the same token, partaking in the semiotic logic of representation and the whole analytic apparatus that goes with it. Within this framework, the essence of the social, the very idea of the possibility of the social is identified with the concept of exchange and the notion of the eternal circulation of exchanges. From ritual to capital, this is the “stuff” that the social is made of; this is the proper domain of the social. And in extension of this, any conception of “social” art is bound to contend with the practices and problems of exchange — in ethical, aesthetic, political and moral terms. The problem with this analysis is the too smooth alignment of human interchange and the exchange mechanism of capital: capital becomes the principle from which everything else is derivated and is placed in the default position of dominance and initiative, a position that can only be negated. Here the post-workerist position developed from Marx’s writings (by Antonio Negri, among others) presents an alternative: the creative initiative is rather seen to reside with the workers themselves who invent new values and forms of togetherness. Capital continually works to catch up with such creativity. Likewise, the contemporary processes of desubjectivization might be seen as a continual challenge to capital rather than simply a mere effect of its “logic”. And from this perspective the new significance of style could also be approached in less negative terms: as an apparatus of social invention.
To see the connection between sociality and obliqueness in Gillick’s style site work is then to pay attention to the link between invention of sociality and operations of abstraction. Going nowhere in particular, evoking “sociality” yet supporting no communal action in the sense associated with the tradition of communal or activist art practices that extend from Wiener Actionism to Atelier Lieshout, Gillick’s style site seems to resist being understood in terms of the habitual models of exchange. In other words, its obliqueness or abstraction, its refusal of any final connection between style and purpose, or style and the recognition of objects or identities, is the result of a logic of association. Gillick perpetually traces connections between elements not normally connected — between sociological fiction and minimalist cubes, between graphic design and television signals — and these connections or associations each bring up moments of difficulty, moments where understanding stops and where thinking and knowledge meets a challenge.
As it happens, this logic of associations has its own specific purchase on social thought. It is related to a mode of thinking where “the social” is not understood as a specific domain of reality governed by a specific set of generic principles, a “context” in which non-social activities take place. The social is, rather, a principle of connectivity and productivity, something that can be traced in the surprising associations between things that are themselves not social, or in the continual bifurcation of reality that arises wherever the precise components of an object or a situation are contested, because new information, new forms of knowledge or action that result from human creativity tend to make the world more complex. And this, of course, is where the forces of Gabriel Tarde’s fiction enters Gillick’s work, since this fiction springs out of a form of sociology that was based on precisely such a logic of associations.  A fantasy of a post-catastrophic underground world where the basic alimentary needs of the remaining population are already taken care of, Tarde’s “Underground (Fragments of Future Histories)” toys with the possibility of describing social relations in other terms than those based on the always negative premises of concepts such as need-fulfillment, consumption or compensation for lack. To this end he invents a human society that can only be properly described in terms of the intensive and differentiating potential of aesthetic and affective phenomena: “The mental space left by the reduction of our needs is taken up by those talents, artistic, poetic and scientific, which multiply and take deep root. They become the true needs of society. They spring from a necessity to produce and not from a necessity to consume.” 
Along with the slogan “To produce is a passion, to consume is only a taste”, the above quote also happens to be one of the key sentences dancing around in Gillick’s book trailer. These are the exact words that are dressed up as luminous television design. The trailer is obviously a typical example of the techniques of capture at work in the aesthetic industries — a device devoted to the task of exploiting the never-ending desire for the next big thing, of keeping audiences in a perpetual state of alertness. But here it also appears under a different guise. For if the assemblage-like presentations of the typical trailer format tend to work, it is precisely because they trigger forces of invention and production that cannot meaningfully be traced back to a single artist creator: the type of forces that are, in fact, central to Tarde’s alternative conception of the social and the elements through which it may be traced.  (After all, nobody cares about the author of a trailer and everybody cares about its capacity to suggest and to trigger). As it happens, a “logic of the trailer” seems to run through numerous works that seem to play off the social forces at work in contemporary design and media environments. The “Briannnnnn and Ferrryyyyyy” project of Gillick and Philippe Parreno (and a long host of other contributors) for a large part reads like a long trailer bouncing off the objects and institutions of copyright law. This is mainly because the titles, credits and other information far exceed the length whatever content this DVD project contains, but also because this content “consists of an endless array of questions, quotations and potentialities rather than any clear-cut demonstration of legal dilemmas”.  And Tobias Rehberger’s “On Otto” uses a cinema poster and trailer — normally the end stages of a film production — as the very point of departure for a cinematic production made in the reverse: the resulting film project results in a multitude of effects, except, perhaps, that of a replete cultural object. As a long list of hyper-professionals from the world of Hollywood cinema do what they know best, and yet the effect is that of a simultaneous unknowing of cinema and a reinvention of cinematic potential.
The design or style elements that loop seductively around themselves in Gillick’s trailer for “Underground” then only seem to perpetuate the logic of production or invention informing the trailer’s format itself: this particular trailer simply promotes the forces of sensation and affect that are key elements in the social construction dreamt up in “Underground (Fragments of Future Histories)”. As it turns out, Gillick’s trailer really did present the content of the book after all. For in this fictional world, superior emphasis is placed on the productive role of aesthetic creation, on a multifarious styling or designing of persons and environments. Importantly, this activity completely passes beyond the focus on monuments or products that informed life in the old world on the surface of the earth — a world where (art) objects stood out as entities under sharp sunlight and where the social world was also mapped in quasi-objective terms, as a domain, space or structure to be grasped in its totality.
One among many contemporary works elaborating the reality of style as a social site, the exhibition promoting the updating of Gabriel Tarde then gives a sort of object lesson in the possible new role given to artistic abstraction. Neither a return to the old issues of formalism, nor a critical mimicry of abstraction as a symptom of an economic and political reality that continually escapes the grasp of its subjects, works establishing a contemporary style site seem to do two things at once: they obviously close in on the elusive aesthetic and affective forces at work in contemporary capital, as well as on their specific machineries of production. But in the same process they dissipate the very idea of a totalizing grasp or overview of such forces, including the transcendental status given to concepts such as capital, labor and art. Promoting difficulty, hermeticism or obliqueness in the name of art is here, above all, a contribution to a sort of epistemological landslide: a call for a critical redescription of whatever it is that we call social forces.
|||The updated edition was published by Les Presses du Réel, Dijon 2004.|
|||See the product presentation of the Brionvega Cuboglass television set at www.singulier.com|
|||The double character of minimalism is described by Hal Foster, The Return of the Real, MIT Press, 1996, pp. 35–71.|
|||See Ina Blom, On the Style Site: Art, Sociality and Media Culture, New York 2007.|
|||In his long and nuanced discussion of the concept of style Meyer Shapiro notably delivers a basic definition of style as “constant form”. Meyer Shapiro, Theory and Philosophy of Art: Style, Artist, Society, New York 1994.|
|||This reading of Walter Benjamin is provided by Andrew Benjamin, Style and Time, Northwestern University Press 2006, pp. 5–38.|
|||This interpretation of real-time technologies is elaborated by Maurizio Lazzarato, Videophilosophie: Zeitwahrnehmung im Postfordismus, Berlin 2002.|
|||Liam Gillick, “Contingent Factors: A response to Claire Bishop’s ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’”, in: October, no. 115, MIT Press 2005, pp. 95–107.|
|||Tim Black, review of Frederic Jameson, Late Marxism: Adorno or the persistence of the Dialectic, published on Culture Wars, June 2007, www.culturewars.com|
|||This strand of sociology has extensively developed by Bruno Latour, in particular in: Reassembling the Social, Oxford 2005. Here he posits Gabriel Tarde as the point of departure of a form of social thinking that presents a radical break with the tradition that extends from Durkheim to Bourdieu. It breaks in particular with any notions of some sort of social totality or macro level and provides a general framework for explaining singular phenomena.|
|||Gabriel Tarde, Underground (Fragments of Future Histories), Dijon 2004, p. 8.|
|||Maurizio Lazzarato has discussed this aspect of Tarde’s thinking in Puissances de l’invention: La psychologie économique de Gabriel Tarde contre l’économie politique, Paris 2002, as well as in his introduction to the updated version of “Underground (Fragments of Future Histories)”.|
|||“Liam Gillick and Philippe Parreno talk about Briannnnnn and Ferryyyyyy“, in: artforum, February 2005, pp. 144–147.|