Re-inventing the Dispositif of Art by Sotirios Bahtsetzis

In an early diagnosis of the Americanized way of life Theodore Adorno states in a critical, rather pessimistic account, which still remains a valuable comment on contemporary lifestyle, that we currently experience a state of loss of imagery about life (“Bilderlosigkeit”). The world is dominated in such as way by both mass culture and the industry that manufactures consent and spectacle that consciousness can only exist as a superficial, easy to impress subjectivity, a subjectivity that doesn’t questions but takes things for granted. According to Adorno this should be seen as the social precondition of a global rise of a new state of half-literacy or half-illiteracy (“Halbbildung”).[1] Exactly the need for substitutes of images, which as Jean Baudrillard’s postmodern theory has proven take over the world in the form of simulacra, ‘the generation by models of a real, without origin or reality,’ [2] derive from this actual loss of an innate agency to visually remember. Remember means having in one’s disposal images taken from a common pool of imagery, images of the past or imagery with inscribed meaning. This “Bilderlosigkeit” means consequently the loss of any historical grounding of the present in the past.

Adorno’s comments on the totalizing effect of “loss of imagery” can be seen as an early account of what in the mid-1970s Michel Foucault described as the effects of the modern dispositif that controls our lives. The dispositif in Foucault’s theory is an interplay of rather heterogeneous ensemble of discourses, institutions, laws and propositions that in a specific historical formation produce both power structures and knowledge.[3] Furthermore it implies a process of subjectification – dispositifs can only be acknowledged as such because they can produce their subjects. Such a dispositif seems to appeal not just to bodies and architectural forms, but generally to what can be sensed, to vision. Adorno’s concept of “loss of imagery”, that results to the formation of the new subjectivity of the half-illiterate individual, could be than interpreted as a negative dispositif, a dispositif of de-subjectivation. This is the term that Giorgio Agamben uses in order to describe modern media-dispositifs that in difference to the previous ones, generate just controllable subjects, a kind of self appointed images in place of bodies delivered to “consumption or to spectacular exhibition.”[4] What is interesting in this context is that Agamben’s notion of dispositif is not a trans-historical phenomenon but linked to the actual condition of post-fordist capitalism. In this context Jacques Aumont’s media-based notion of the dispositif is extremely useful. It implies both a specific disposition that regulates the relation of the viewer to the images in a certain symbolical context, while situating every dispositif to a certain historical and social context.[5] In this sense every dispositif is a mirror of both the historical moment and the subject that is created through this specific field of forces acting upon a technological, social, legal, economic etc. environment. However this function of the dispositif shouldn’t be understood in terms of a pre-given, deterministic system.

A dispositif should be also understood as a possibility to expose antinomies and conflicts. It might be interesting here to link these dispositif-concepts with Jacques Rancière’s accounts of the “politics of aesthetics”. Rancière’s ideas combine possibilities of bringing the subject to the fore as a political being while claiming space for both the political and the aesthetic realm. Rancière’s actual contribution to the discussion about the postmodern hybridization of art and the annihilation of the political during current malaise of postdemocracy[6] is his theory that both art and politics are ‘conditional realities, that exists or not according to a specific partition of the sensible’[7], thus opening up the discussion about both of them. The actual opportunity of contemporary art to be political isn’t to embrace the romantic utopia of merging art and life, creating an unseparate form of common life when art and politics, work and leisure, public and private life are one and the same. Luc Boltanski has actually revealed the fallacies of the dream about a total revolution through the deployment of art in life. He states that the artistic critique of the romantic era up to our times has not been a failure. It has simply succeeded only to well! Whole sections of the artists’ critique against capitalism (Baudelaire, Surrealism, Situationism) were integrated in the corporate management rhetoric.[8] The spontaneous, creative, rhizomatic individual of the avant-garde became the flexible, precarious worker of the 1990s. We can apparently be fully in charge in changing our identity -and job - as we please and be proud of this artistic touch in our lives. What a twist of history! On the other hand Rancière also rejects the dogma of modernism of art as pure negativity, indifferent to any program of social transformation or any participation in the adornment of prosaic life (Adorno) but also immune to the dangers of that adornment of power that Benjamin called "aestheticization of politics" and Debord “the society of spectacle”. For Rancière ‘a critical art is in fact a sort of "third way", a kind of specific negotiation between those two constitutive politics of aesthetics’[9]. Critical art must borrow from the zones of indistinction of art and in the same time it must borrow from the separateness of art works the sense of sensory foreignness ascribed only to them.

Rancière proposes practices of redistribution of spaces and times, of forms of visibility of the common, forms of connections between things, images and meanings, which are understood as provocation of political intelligibility. These could be described as new dispositifs in both the sense of Foucault (as an apparatus of subjectivation in a given discours) and Aumont (as a cinematic dispositif). We can make the attempt to link the ideological-dispositif to the cinematic-dispositif. It is actually Jean-Louis Baudry who first theorizes the screening situation in terms of a specific dispositif.... while ‘the implication of a positioning of the spectator, first of all topologically, but also ideologically, does connect Baudry's concept with Foucault's.’[10] Based on that we can than actually put the question if video-installation that topologically and ideologically “installs” the viewer constitutes a form of critical art, provoking a break in our perception, a disclosure of some secret connection of things hidden behind the everyday reality in the sense of Rancière. Which could be the critical potential that the form of a video-installation can still deploy? Any examples?

I propose that the entire work of Amsterdam based artist Stefanos Tsivopoulos is a study on how such a new critical dispositif can be formed. His video-installations employ specific spatial arrangement and panoptical devises, which play upon the status of apparatuses in the sense of both Foucault and Baudry.

One of the main focuses of these video-installations is the condition of the subject in view: In “Actors” (2004) four young actors have to perform in a kind of improvisation a role that have never played before that of the army recruit. These young, randomly selected actors have basically to “perform themselves” using stereotypes, images and behavioral patters that derive from their own memories, or any kind of narrations or imagery. This mediated semi-personal, semi-collective memory is the base of the performance to come. Over the course of seven hours during their imprisonment, the actors develop a rough play of power, a kind of a commentary to the Hegelian slave-master topic. The main projection is accompanied by two monitors, in which the actors talking together out of character, analyze their improvised interaction, highlighting the simultaneous theatricality and authenticity. In “Play” (2006) five camera actors are invited to perform sketches based on images from the prisoner abuse scandal in the Abu Ghraib prison published in worldwide news media. In a free re-enactment the actors reconstruct in tense shifting tableaux the moments prior and after the depicted scene, creating a behavioral game around these given images. In both video-installations the performed personae are always juxtaposed with their “real” counterparts – audition interviews in front of the camera where they “reveal” their ambitions, diverse family backgrounds and filmic role models. The comprising of these two realities is driven to extreme in “The Interview” (2007), a work that engages in this play of identities not only real people but actual locations. This work consists of two versions of the same interview taken in the same place, the interior of the “Legacy Colacovic” building in Belgrade, an emblematic building reflecting the historical changes in the country. The artist commissioned a BBC reporter to interview a Serb veteran in a location with specific historical references. After the interview has been produced the artist-producer gave the transcript to a Serbian filmmaker and asked him to make a fictional version, shot at the same location, interviewing an actor from Sarajevo. Here the interplay of identities between assumed, performed, imagined and desired personae unveils not only the fallacies of the “objective”, neutral documentary, but also the way in which truthful narratives are created by cinematographic dispositifs. In “Reverse” (2008) the integrity of the protagonist’s persona –actor Baki Davrak- is at stake as during his improvised narration personal memories are mixed with excerpts from already played scripts. Cinema roles about Turkish immigrants living in Germany infuse the personal memories of a Germany born actor of Turkish decadence. The uncanny situation having to listen to a semi-fictitious, half-real persona actually questions the very concept of identity (ethnic, national or self-acclaimed), which is seen as an act that is rehearsed all the time, much like a script. This script becomes a reality, as we perform these actions over and over again, as we fill up with borrowed images and lent experiences. (According to Butler “identity” can only be understood in context of performativity as 'that reiterative power of discourse to produce the phenomena that it regulates and constrains'[11]. If these open “opportunities to perform” in Tsivopoulos video-installations reveal the basic dispositif of subjectivation currently at work, they manifest simultaneously an opportunity to reconsider our relation to the perception of reality and the ideological and political implications of this relation.

‘The cinematographic apparatus is unique in that it offers the subject perceptions “of a reality” whose status seems similar to that of representations experienced as perceptions.’[12] In a specifically, Foucauldian reading of Baudry’s notion of the image-dispositif we should pose the question if in Tsivopoulos’ video-installations the moment of identity formation through reiteration applies also to the self of the actual viewer. The viewers confront themselves with oppressive psychological spaces, which actually simulate panoptical devises: the film-set, the reality TV, the documenting video. Even in one of his first installation, the “Bachelor Pad” (2002) shown in his debut solo exhibition in Athens the spatial arrangement functions as a dispositif that works as a set, but this time for the actual viewer, who as a study participant takes involuntarily part in the artist’s Milgram experiment! The artist has created a replica of his first apartment, a common Athenian student’s apartment, one third of its original size and minus the furniture. As one interior wall is made with Plexiglas the viewer can’t enter the space. Challenging the body's immediate relation to architecture the imagined habitation of the interior functions as a spatial dispositif, an inversed, uncanny panopticum. In “Land” (2006) the camera’s movement assumes to position the actors-interviewee anew in spatial arrangements that reverse our initial perceptions. Unexpectedly viewers realize that the free-speaking film heroes are actually prisoners. Their “land” is just a tiny, isolated island! Both film set and camera movement function in this case as a dispositif, that operates according to the concept of the Panopticon. Foucault has used this concept as a metaphor for modern “disciplinary” societies that pervasively function only in terms of building hierarchical structures that observe and normalize, while making us that through the implementation of such strategies we self-actualize.

In a series of videos such as “Untitled (The Remake)” (2007) and “Untitled (In Plato’s Cave)” (2008) Tsivopoulos turns to archival filmic material. This is comprised not just out of original footage but also out of authentic technical equipment and architectural settings. In these cases the actual remake of a specific historical time is not simply based on the fictitious remake of the real or possible actions taken place during that time, but on a reconstruction of the actual architecture. “In Plato’s Cave” (2008) is shoot in a reconstructed lab in Berlin, which was made with the use of photographs from archives of Geyer Berlin as reference (initially a cinema post production lab that was converted to the main lab to be used by the German Propaganda Ministry). The lab was equipped with original equipment of the 1940's taken out the Film Museum Berlin. The work features an Arriflex 35, the first professional hand held camera constructed mainly for the needs of war reporters, pointing out the fact that the wider use of the moving image (people in Germany were flocking to theaters to watch the advancing of the troops in the eastern front), reinforced the development of equipment like cameras, film projectors, editing systems and techniques. In Tsivopoulos work this historicized version of a lab is juxtaposed to a present one. The actual video consists of two parts, in which the same actor plays both the role of the war reporter of the 1940s and a contemporary one. In both parts he edits and finally watches a short film that consists mainly of cut-aways taken out of propaganda and war film reports. The films show basically neutral images of nature or architecture that exist between war images and are mainly used as passing or editing shots.

The video “Untitled (In Plato’s Cave)” makes us rethink the fundamental role technique plays in a process of visually re-constructing and actually forming our mediated reality. Heidegger's concept of the “Ge-stell”, which implies a certain arrangement and a certain tendency that this arrangement brings forth, has been used to describe the ontological basis of modern technology and on the same time a model of human existence. Heidegger’s Ge-stell is another term to describe Foucault’s dispositif.[13] The equipped interior architecture of a film lab in Tsivopoulos sets becomes the symbol of such a dispositif, a general and heterogeneous set that includes and frames virtually everything visible, -everything that can be sensed in Rancière’s words- and is always inscribed in a power game. In his account of the cinematographic apparatus Baudry proposes a direct analogy between the spectators and the prisoners in Plato’s allegory of the cave. In these terms the cinematic dispositif becomes the prototype of all dispositifs that frames everything that can be sensed, desired and subjected to. It is not just a dream machine but it incorporates the final accomplishment of the history of inventions and the absolute actualization of all historical memory. We might have to believe that Hollywood is indeed the end station of all enlightened utopia or the incarnation of desire that is already present in Plato’s cave! Heidegger asserts: “That the world becomes picture is one and the same event with the event of man’s becoming subjectum in the midst of that which is.”[14] With “Weltbild” Heidegger means a picture about the already existing world but also an idea, an anticipation of a possible world, a virtual formation of reality in terms of an intangible, uncapturable, ineffable appearance.”[15] It is this transformation of the world (Welt) into a picture (Weltbild), which is equivalent to the formation of the subject as an ontological and historical category. We can indeed read Heidegger’s account as a pledoyer about the positive effects of modernity, such as industrialization, commodification and mass entertainment. However it is also a critical position against the mechanisms of technically supported phantasmagoria that entirely takes over any possibilities for mental representation. This suggests the state of “Bilderlosigkeit” as described by Adorno, which is the outcome and source of both subjective and historical alienation.

In this dichotomy we can locate Tsivopoulos’ critical stance against the dominating narrative of media history, which is concerned with a teleological view about subjectivity. Tsivopoulos’ works imply that the loss of visual memory means also a loss of a desire for the sensible and a possible alienation. Opening up the eyes would mean to create new possibilities to experience the sensible, the region revealed through sight, which as both Plato and Rancière point out is at the same time part of the realm of the political. Rancière states: ‘The main procedure of political or critical art consists in setting out the encounter and possibly the clash of heterogeneous elements. The clash of these heterogeneous elements is supposed to provoke a break in our perception, to disclose some secret connection of things hidden behind the everyday reality.’[16] Paraphrasing Rancière we can say that the new dispositifs proposed with the work of Tsivopoulos, keep something of the tension that pushes aesthetic experience toward the reconfiguration of collective life and something of the tension that withdraws aesthetic sensibility from the other spheres of experience. In doing so the dispositifs become not just copies of reality but they assign a new meaning to reality’s perception. In this way they open up possibilities to recreate collective life (political and aesthetic) according to this new perception. If the main goal of art remains what Walter Benjamin’s emphatically has stated, namely that the (fascist) aesthetication of politics must be opposed by the (revolutionary) politicization of art, than this should lead to a development of refined dispositifs of experience, such as those of critical art that counterbalance our hidden, everyday fascism. Badiou has stated that the principal characterization of our century (the century of modernity, modernisms and postmodernism) remains the passion for the real, which is always unfolded under the paradigm of war[17], the messianic re-invention of the war that will bring an end to all wars, the total war. Tsivopoulos’ works deploy exactly this obsession of the new man, who as in the video “Untitled (In Plato’s Cave)” remains captured in the state of imagery-loss that derives from a basic misunderstanding, an inability to understand his brutal wars; these wars, which he recurrently hops to get rid of. This is the new man who isn’t even able to imagine any encounter, any life outside this phantasmagoria of war drama deliberately asking to experience the definitively Real. After the end of Man (Nietzsche) the prisoner in Plato’s cave couldn’t be dragged upward, out of his cave. However he should look at the fire and not turn his gaze back toward the shadows on the cave’s wall. That’s what Tsivopoulos’ work proposes to us, a kind of Brechtian “theatre of distancing” where the display –within the play – of the gap between the play and the real reassures that “the semblance is the true situating principle of the real, that which localizes and renders visible the brutal effects of the real’s contingency.”[18]


[1] Theodor W. Adorno, Theorie der Halbbildung, in: Gesammelte Schriften, ed. by. Rolf Tiedemann, Vol. 8, Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1990, p. 93-121

[2] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1994, p. 1

[3] Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge. Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. By Colin Gordon, New York: Pantheon Book, 1980, p. 194-195

[4] Giorgio Agamben, Qu’ est-ce qu’ un dispositif? Paris: Eds. Payot & Rivages, 2007, p. 43-45

[5] Jacques Aumont, L’Image, Paris: Nathan, 1990

[6] Colin Crouch, Post-Democracy, London: Press, 2004

[7] Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics (2006), (unpublished)

[8] Luc Boltanski, The Present Left and the Longing for Revolution, in: Birnbaum, Daniel, Graw, Isabelle (eds.), Under Pressure. Pictures, Subjects, and the New Spirit of Capitalism, Berlin, New York: Sternberg Press, 2008, p. 66

[9] Jacques Rancière, ibid.

[10] Frank Kessler, Notes on Dispositif, (unpublished)

[11] Judith Butler qtd. in: Du Gay, Paul, Evans, Jessica, Redman, Peter, Identity: A reader, London: Sage, 2000

[12] Jean-Louis Baudry, The Apparatus: Metapsychological Approaches to the Impression of Reality in Cinema, in: Mast, Gerald, Cohen, Marshall, Baudry, Leo (eds.), Film Theory and Criticism, New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 704

[13] see Kessler, ibid.

[14] Martin Heidegger, The Age of the World Picture, in Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, New York: Harper and Row, 1977, p. 132

[15] Anne Friedberg, The Virtual Window. From Alberti to Microsoft, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006, p. 9

[16] Jacques Rancière, ibid.

[17] Alain Badiou, The Century, Cambridge: Polity, 2007, p. 34.

[18] Alain Badiou, ibid., p. 48