Contemporary art no longer possesses a liberating quality, but, rather, speaks self-reflexively of affiliations and interests particular to the artistic community. If the polemic generated by Fareed Armaly’s exhibition Contact, 1992, is any indication, for an artist to question this kind of artistic production without conforming to it (like Hans Haacke and Philippe Thomas)—for him to construct a far-reaching meditation on the modes of cultural production—is clearly unacceptable. Armaly refuses to play the ritual games of the art world. This refusal is first signaled by the heading “No-opening” on the invitation to the exhibition, an interpretation reinforced by the fact that the invitation itself is an extract from the page of the phonebook where one would look for the name Armaly (between Armange Kose and Arman Ziya); it presents him as a resident of Cologne, but a foreign resident, outside German society and culture.
Armaly’s work is centered on the critique of transparent communication that not only determines the value of art as one of mere exhibition value (symbolized by the gallery’s facade) but beyond that, controls the collective processes of mediation, communication, and symbolic exchanges that construct social space. How, then, to destabilize this ideal of transparent social communication, the ultimate form of leftist European ideology in the 1970s? The contemporary artist is a victim of this ideal, and of its spectacular dissemination in the deadening pluralism of models of recognition, which transform artistic value into cultural value: rapidly traded exchange value, an esthetic product, and a byproduct of fashion.
Armaly foregrounds the spatial and architectural dimensions of these processes of communication, unmasking the consensual strategies that efface differences, partial subjectivations, minority territories, and, hence, any emancipatory possibility of artistic practice. In effect, Armaly’s work begins where the social sciences leave off: at the passage from time to space, history to geography, archaeology (Michel Foucault) to cartography (Gilles Deleuze), from economy to cultural/social architecture.
The exhibition was founded on restructuring the gallery space. The visitor entered through the office of the gallery and was then invited to proceed down a hallway that opened onto two rooms, each looking out to the exterior (one room’s window opened onto the street, the other’s onto the building’s courtyard). In each “salon” an institutional circular sofa represented the “German” population, and its two amputated sections “the Other”: 30 percent foreign workers in Cologne and 8 percent in Germany as a whole. From one “communal” sofa, the visitor was invited to look at a selection of television programs. In one room were shows from the ‘70s mocking the national paradigm of the model family; a book of a series directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder; and a TV game-show called Wünsch Dir Was (Make a wish), exploring the questions raised in the catalogue of Contact In the other room, Armaly showed images of courtroom drawings created for broadcast, while TV monitors flashed images of trials.
Here and there, on the walls and the windowpanes, was a sticker, half-dove, and half-eagle, used in Germany on picture windows to frighten away birds and prevent them from harming themselves. This is the key symbol of the show—combining (Daniel Buren’s stripes with Dan Graham’s two-way mirror constructions—functioning as a visual warning of the illusion of transparency at all points of “contact” in the social structure. Finally, what Armaly destabilizes is art as “exhibition value,” that is, as pure exchange value. He works in the direction of c reevaluating the cultural value of art, not in and of itself, but as a catalyst of cultural production—thumbing his nose at political conformity, reconnecting art with its emancipatory function, forging authentic “contacts,” beyond any prefabricated sense of community. Such is the difference between diversion and disorientation.
Translated from the French by Diana C. Stall.