“The critique of the system of sign–exchange rates.”

The aesthetic production of Fareed Armaly


Je näher man ein Wort ansieht, desto femer sieht es zurück.1

Wäre das Fremde nicht länger verfemt. so wäre Entfremdung kaum mehr.2

In their first accessible state,3 the actual installation, most of the works of Fareed Armaly are coined within a closely delineated material and ideological space. Each of these elaborate montages of disparate visual material can be interpreted and described as the development of a moderately straightforward narrative. Unfortunately, for the unassertive reader, the work of Fareed Armaly is like the word in Kraus’s aphorism: the closer one looks at it, the further it looks back.

Instead of rephrasing the Ancient vs. Modern discussion in late-twentieth Century Post-Anything jargon, Armaly speculates upon a swerve in the conditional and exploratory attitude that defined the epistemological turn in Minimal and Conceptual Art. Elements of his installations might stir the reminiscence of an epical pattern. But the ultimate structure of each work is open and multifarious. Armaly extends his speculations upon the provisional notion of the historicity of reason and on the Kantian problem of the dialectical inconsistency to confront empirical propositions to logical arguments. We therefore briefly consider the decisive shift towards a knowledge-theoretical emphasis of art that gained momentum in the 1960s. It was based upon assumptions, mainly theorized in linguistics and philosophy. Language, including (the) language(s) of art, was determined as a sign system that could be instrumentalized by ideologies to stabilize and perpetuate power or, in negative terms, for the colonization of consciousness and the reproduction of power relations. The discussion in the 1950s about the difference between the language of art and common language wasn’t only a prolongation of the old “when is art" question. It rather indicated the awareness of a social area, the art world, where basically the same materials as in common life supposedly get new, pure, different, high4 stature. It was the artist’s systemic privilege not to conform to this model. Some artists used supposedly low forms of visual culture, like comic books or advertisements. Others refused to conform to the usual form of meaning by rejecting the (mimetic) image or traditional structuring devices like grammar, formal category (like the novel, painting) and style. “Converrà sottolineare anche l’importanza delta coscienza negativa (e dunque dell’impegno negativo) che essa [the art of the Neo-Avant-garde] ha acquisito di sé.”5 The critique initially focused on the commodification of the material aspect of art production. Inadvertently emphasizing the epistemological role of the material object and its production and distribution modes, the latter were revealed as active agents with various codes in the linguistic reference frame. The awareness of art’s interdependency with the socioeconomic conditions and the system-related prerogative of relative independency also implicated a loss of innocence. This is what Eduardo Sanguineti, a contemporary [1963], witness and participant, described when he distinguished between the [historical] avant-garde as a heroic-pathetic moment and on the other hand his own historical surroundings [the Italian Neoavanguardia] as the cynical moment.6 The prospect of the utopian moment had become an abstraction. Much in line with Dada, this utopian moment was undefined. Contrary to Dada, it was not considered within reach any more, neither in time nor through immediacy.

A closer look at a few works of Fareed Armaly indicates the intertwinement of different modes of aesthetic signs in dialogue with the material and abstract institutional surroundings. The individualized part of the collaboration with Christian Philipp Müller for the Köln Show consisted of the essay “Supply Song” in the publication Nachschub, the catalogue of the exhibition.7 Armaly’s discussion of Muzak as a type of music was related to the architectural conditions of commodity exchange, International Style modular unit architecture, the degradation of the methodological grid and of structural thought into a suitable instrument for benefits. The text disclosed the appropriation of labour and the dissimulation of the more ruthless power relations under the pressure of the market for a never ending demand for new supplies.

When the Köln Show piece mainly presented an economical approach, Armaly’s work for the Maison de la Culture et de la Communication [MCC] of Saint-Etienne developed from a political/cultural angle.8 The installation was set up from the building’s usually deserted- immense entrance hall annex impressive stairway, both in a mixture of Politburo-style and International Style-Kitsch.9 During the long way up, the visitor was informed/entertained by monitors, showing a continuous loop of edited fragments from a French movie: Orphée, by Jean Cocteau (1950), alternated with shots of blank film. On top of the stairs, before entering the elevator that opened directly into the pre-exhibition room six stories higher was a panel with a wallpaper-like repetition of the poster for the exhibition. This poster showed images from the film sequence that eventually ended in Orphée walking through the mirror. The pre-exhibition room was restored to its initial state by removing the modifications from the last few years. The walls were, repainted in their original grey color. The furniture and carpet were reinstated while the glass doors, originally separating the first space—ante-chamber—from the main exhibition room were re-installed and locked. Through them, the viewer could see a human-size, wooden triptych frame, resembling the mirror frame in Orphée, free-standing in the centre of the large exhibition room. On the walls of the first space were framed drawings by children from the institution’s art classes, responding to the proposal to picture and then to draw an entrance in the MCC. Next to the children drawings was a negative silhouette (white on grey ground) of the triptych. In the silhouette and virtually coinciding with one side panel was a door that opened to the framing workshop of the MCC. On top of the storage structure in this workshop were monitors that showed images of the corridors from the Maison, used for maintenance, for the mobility of the support team and for functional transport. One monitor maintained the Orphée motive. Fragments of radio broadcasts using different sign encryptions emphasized the codification of communication. In some sections of the soundtrack, real French radio news broadcasts were superimposed upon the surrealist poetry, heard from the radio in the film. The newspapers that usually covered the working table now stemmed from various periods of French post-war history.

The work mainly focused on access and passage. The viewer’s attention was drawn to the relationship between a hypothetical cultural policy and its accomplishment, an architectural program and its building, the social ambitions of a cultural elite and its culture. However, the installation was no historical commentary. Its title was Orphée 1990. Orphée’s recycling of surrealist imagery and motives in 1950 coincided with the first publication in 1951 of André Malraux’s ideas about art from which eventually developed the political conceptions of Malraux as the Minister of Culture. He attempted to realize the decentralization of culture. The MCC is a monument of the conditions of this policy. Armaly’s exhibition was the last but one exhibition, twenty years after the building opened. Malraux’ implementation of the policy of decentralization and popularization of culture was like his implementation of art history. In Le Musée imaginaire, he started from appropriate ambitions but with inadequate ideas about the social character of culture. Embracing 1930s ideas about the benefits of reproduction techniques, he chopped up all art from all ages, places, materials, and dimensions into the same type and dimension of reproduction. This should have given him the opportunity to formulate a universal art concept. Except from the fact that the works of art in Le Musée imaginaire were all devastated and deprived from everything that made them art, the question remains how Malraux found out which art he needed to formulate his universal conception of art. The same goes for his cultural policy, with centralized decisions on the new institutions to decentralize culture. Armaly relied upon the institutional conditions to formulate a critique of the institution at the very moment in 1990. He didn’t try to propose a new program. The narrative from the passage through the mirror to the physical and historical passage of the viewer through the MCC and the related cultural policy is an invitation to consider our proper conditions and presuppositions on which we base our decisions. The initial object of the work for Saint-Etienne was the structural complexity of cultural politics and its relationship with culture. The itinerary of its development coincided with a physical and historical passage through the institution MCC.

The exhibition (re)Orient in a gallery in Paris in 198910 concerned the passage from cultural identity over the ideological frame of the category of identity to Western ethnocentrism in some emphatic categories of knowledge. His exhibition Wechselkurse (Exchange rates), 1988 already touched this issue on a European scale, emphasizing the economical element.11 For (re)Orient, several wall structures were added to the existing gallery space. From the street, through a small, rectangle opening in the entrance door, one could see a scene from Godard’s movie Bande apart. The sequence with people running through the Louvre was repeated and echoed throughout the installation. Once passed the entrance doors, the installation displayed a collection of paraphernalia from Orientalism and French national and colonial memory, linked to French cultural history, as well as references to sign theory and the relation between signification and procedures. The juxtaposition included a late-nineteenth century bombshell from the Ottoman wars, now a tourist item with an etched-in journey narrative; a set of mirrors on pedestals, a standard Letraset catalogue, opened to the pages that show a reproduction of a transparent colour film reproduction of a painted portrait of Napoleon by Gros, a map of Lebanon and of Beirut and surroundings with French and American warships in the harbours, and a combat helicopter, a landscape card game of twenty-four cards with landscape elements—in Armaly’s version with Beirut vedutes made from Letraset international signs, images and figures—allowing 1 686 553 615 927 3.54 187 720 permutations; a damaged Muybridge photolitho plate with an analysis of the movement of a walking soldier, contrasted to an image of the missing part from the photo as a negative space. Proportionally to a blank space with the dimensions of the photo; a circular table displayed photographs of photocopies of the tide pages of books and of statistical surveys, all dealing with the voyage to the Orient, folded as book jackets. All of these elements stand in an elaborate intertwining of relations, analogies, inconsistencies and contradictions. For instance, the missing spot from Muybridge’s photo sequence invokes the objectivity of scientific theory, structural analysis and objective research through the visual display of the grid at different moments in time (objective parameter/variable) and of the atomization of the object (movement/time). The original publishers included this mutilated set in the publication. This decision suggests that the missing part was considered unimportant for the objectivity of the document. It is exactly from these gaps in our knowledge—the obvious, the supposedly structural or binary consistencies—that inconsistencies can be retraced. This epistemological approach traverses empirical examples to challenge unquestioned conditions, programs and procedures of the subject and its knowledge.

In terms of methodology, Armaly’s installations mainly consist of the mapping of a speculative area. The oro-hydrographical connotation of mapping implies the charting of uneven ground, both land and sea. Maps are preparatory outlines to an exploratory approach of the unknown as well as pragmatic structural reference frames to question the principles and assumptions of the known. A rather strict code system is used, although it may vary in detail between individual maps. Different from geography, Fareed Armaly’s charts operate with several and, adjustable codes and models, open to change. His works contain both traditional metaphor and modernist12 allegory. They maintain a narrative structure and montage procedures. They can be specified as situational aesthetics without unequivocally being site specific. There is a persistent dialectical relationship between the general responsibility of emancipation and the awareness of non-identity and the care for the particular identity of the situation. Strategies are questioned before they become banality.13 By insisting on the multifold, his work is complementary to the work of the ‘initiators of the epistemological turn Hegel speaks of the orientalischer Taumel der Subjektivität.’14 Armaly discloses the crossings, projections, and protuberations of a shared language between various discourses different from and complementary to his immediate antecedents, he emphasizes the role and importance, of diverse approaches of a problematic subject in a problematic world. The swerve occurs where the visual threatens to collapse into philosophy. No real answers. Not even the ultimate question. In each work, Armaly interrogates a proposition that somehow is related to the site. In fact, he undertakes a journey, through the various issues he encounters up to the point where the initial motif is dissimulated. In each installation, the hegemony of issues in the development of thought is thus questioned. It exposes the confidential a priori analysis from which resulted the primary topic. Nevertheless, the author only fades away temporarily to return in the aggregate. The critique of the subject through the disappearance of the particular motif concerns the subject, alienated into a monad. The disappearance of the author has also to do with the doubts and incertitudes of the artist on the truth of his proposition. Determined linear critique mostly reinforced and updated the existing systemic conditions. The object of critique proved to be more open and flexible than its critics. Armaly realized that the strategies of negative dialectics had to be reconsidered. But questions remain. Is it legitimate to use the strategies and procedures of illusion against illusion (like Hans Haacke does)? Should emancipation not first address the illusion of platonic illusion (like in many theoretical writings on Identity, the Other, the Similar) against a materialist concept of illusion? Or what about an immediate political commitment for art? For example, the model of immediate political commitment by artists in the U.S. (from the Art Workers Coalition to Act Up) should not be too easily transferred to Europe since it has everything to do with the enormous difference in the practical functioning of the Political system and, related to this, of the interpretation of the concept of Democracy.

The commitment of the narration and its dialectical difference to montage avoid the domesticated cynicism of linguistic or ethnological aestheticism. Refraining from the illusion of synthesis, the alienation of communication is challenged.


  1. Karl Kraus, Über die Sprache. Glossen, Aphorismen und Gedicht, ed. Heinrich Fischer (Verlag: Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1987), 1.
  2. Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialektik (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1982), 174.
  3. The particular mode of the category of the work of art where the physical installation is limited to the time of the exhibition has several other moments like descriptions reproductions and interpretations.
  4. See the belated High and Low discussion following the exhibition at MoMA in New Art in New York for the publications of MOMA, also a special issue of the magazine October, no. 56 (Spring 1991).
  5. Fausto Curt, “Proposta per una storia dell avanguardie” in il Verri, no. 8 (1963): 6-16, republished in Angelo Guglielmi and Renato Barillu, eds., Gruppo 63 (Milano, Feltrinelli: Critca e teoria, 1976), quotation from page 327.
  6. Edoardo Sanguineti, “Sopra I’avanguardia,” in Edoardo Sanguineti Ideologia e linguaggio (Milano: Feltrinelli, 1978), 63. The essay was first published in 1963.
  7. Fareed Armaly, “Supply Song” in Nachschub, ed. Isabelle Graw (Cologne: Spex, 1990): 86–89, for the exhibition The Köln Show, Cologne, div. gallery (April 24–May 26). Extended in a traveling work Auftakt Display included Sales Texts. More details in my essay over Christian Philipp Müller in Forum International, no. 11 (1992) : 41–48. Other texts by Armaly in the German magazines Texte zur Kunst and Spex; Other publications—Terminal Zone (1984) and R.O.O.M. (1989).
  8. Fareed Armaly, Orphée, Maison de la Culture et de la Culture et de la Communication, Saint-Etienne, 1990 (June 8–July 13); Installation photo in Forum International, no. 11 (1990): 39.
  9. c.f.r. My essay on Christian Philipp Müller, Op. Cit.
  10. Armaly, (re)Orient exhibition, Galerie Lorenz, Paris (October 7–November 4, 1989).
  11. Armaly, Wechselkurse, Galerie Christoph Dürr, Munich, 1988 (April–May 28).
  12. In Walter Benjamin‘s conception: “Das Bild im Feld der allegorischen Intuition ist Bruchstück, Rune. . .Der falsche Schein der Totalität geht aus” Benjamin Walter, Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1978), 154.
  13. Like the exposure of truisms as truisms by Jenny Holzer has become a truism.
  14. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel,Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie, vol. 3, (Suhrkamp, 1986), 457; GWF Hegel, Werke, vol. 20.