‘Classical contract theory, is I would insist a social cosmology that is deeply performative—that is to say: it is oriented to installing the future it imagines.’
Angela Mitropoulos, Contract and Contagion: From Biopolitics to Oikonomia, 2012.
‘… He had accused her of moping around to the point where it was slowing down her performance. He received a magazine called Business Bits free in the mail, and evidently he’d been reading it.
“Oh, my performance,” said Louise, “you must excuse my performance”.’
Tom Drury, ‘Accident at the Sugarbeet’, The New Yorker, February 1992.
Tino Seghal’s performance piece This is Exchange (2006) holds an allegorical place within the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam on a busy Monday morning. It takes place within a room on the second floor—also occupied by Sol le Witt’s WALL DRAWING #1804 (2013).
Two security guards approach visitors, inviting them to engage in a conversation on the market economy in exchange for €2. A critic loiters in the room—myself—observing the le Witt and attempting to look like a regular visitor, although unsure what that should mean.
‘This is a work’, says one of the guards. She has her routine established—keep firm eye contact, people tend to withdraw; affirm that this is not the wall-drawing, people tend to get confused; keep a good distance, even artworks have personal space.
She sets out the terms of the trade, €2 for a talk on the economy, ‘Do you accept?’ ‘Ok, sure’, I say. ‘So’, she says, ‘what do you think about the market economy?’ ‘Well’, I say, ‘I think it’s important that we think about the market economy as something historical rather than as an eternal fact.’ ‘Oh’ she says, looking surprised, ‘you’ve thought about this before.’ There’s a long pause, and I begin to panic that I’ve broken the work. Eventually I ask what usually happens. ‘Well, normally people haven’t thought about it,’ she says, ‘so it’s just a matter of getting them talking for a while.’
We speak further—she’s at the end of her session, it gets exhausting approaching people, she volunteered because she’s interested in the artwork of Seghal and gets a small stipend, yes she could do anything in the exchange, no she’s never thought to take someone to another room to pursue the conversation. After a while the conversation seems to have run its course and so we say goodbye. ‘Oh wait,’ she says, ‘This is Exchange, Tino Seghal, 2006’.
It is discomforting to the conventions of the critic to give such a narrative account of a work, and yet under the terms that have propelled Seghal’s live art into the museum, this is all a part of the piece. Every element of the conversation—the guard’s fixed eye-contact in initiating it, the viewer’s observation of etiquette in not breaking this gaze—all components are contained by the work, sealed in the end by the trademark attribution to its author: Tino Seghal.
It is in this way that Seghal’s chief achievement in opening up the art museum to a new wave of performance art has not been so much in introducing live bodies to the space as a new contractual form. When Seghal sells one of his works it occurs never in a written or material form, but rather as a verbal agreement. The buyer must carry the work and its conditions within memory. This undoubtedly significant innovation occurs as a modification in buying-power—one that permits performance art itself to be purchased rather than material artefacts such as scores or photographs.
What Seghal and this shift have in common is a basis in the contract form. In her incisive analysis, Contract and Contagion: From Biopolitics to Oikonomia (2012), political theorist Angela Mitropoulos discusses the privatisation of risk and capitalisation of futurity that subtends the neoliberal order. In the transition from social democratic ‘welfare’ to market-based ‘workfare’ the real costs of cuts in social spending are borne in the work of what Mitropoulos terms “intimate self-management”.
Could it be that in contracting the social encounter, Seghal’s work relies upon a viewer’s observation of etiquette in a way that mirrors this? If so, then we might ask whose ‘work’ is in fact taking place in a piece such as This is Exchange?
At base this complex discloses a confusion over ‘object’ and ‘commodity’. To truly counter an endless-growth model systemic change is needed avoid producing not merely art objects, but to avoid producing art commodities. Has Seghal’s art-social contract rendered a new human-time-commodity, or, could it point towards a much-needed Performance Theory of Value?
The author would like to thank the following people for their generous conversation during the writing of this piece; Janet Biehl, Sven Lütticken, Jonas Staal and Christel Vesters.