Hidden Exhibitions

Daniel Birnbaum and Sven-Olov Wallenstein’s book on Lyotard and the idea of the exhibition combines art criticism and philosophy in a way that is unlike any other.

Installation view from Les immatériauxat Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1985.

There is a rich, but sparse, post-Kantian tradition wanting to constitute an intimate relationship between philosophical thinking and art. It begins with Friedrich von Schelling’s idea in The Philosophy of Art (1802-03) of art as the “organon of philosophy,” (that which gives philosophy its categories and tools) and stretches forward to Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory (1970) and Jean Francois Lyotard’s Discourse, Figure (1971) in our time. To this tradition we can now add Daniel Birnbaum and Sven-Olov Wallenstein’s Spacing Philosophy: Lyotard and the Idea of the Exhibition (2019). The emphasis is placed on the latter, and what the writers set out to show is how, as a complement to the written word, an exhibition can be a medium for philosophical thought.

I see this as a new and radical approach, unlike anything else I’ve read. Some would probably argue that German Romanticism’s idea of art criticism was a similar endeavour, but that would be forgetting that the exhibition – unlike traditional art criticism – is unburdened by the limits of language and must therefore be based on a philosophy which admits crucial non-linguistic aspects, not only of art, but of thinking itself. This becomes apparent early on, in the book’s first chapter, “The figure of thought,” which refers to Lyotard’s idea of “the figural” as the designation for the sensuous that cannot be captured by language or perception, but which can still break through there. 

What does this sensory side of thought and truth refer to? I once watched a televised interview in which Lyotard answers a question about what a certain author’s work was about: “The strident. It’s always about stridency… .” What he is talking about is a sensory dimension that can be about the sound or rhythm of language, or about the relationships between colours, and which is also present in philosophical thought. It can emerge as a mood or a flavour, a sharp light, or indeed as something obscure, slimy, or flimsy. This is why philosophy and art can be thought to share a common, albeit unconscious, space from which ideas emerge in a state that precedes their development as art or philosophy – a space which could be repeated as an exhibition space, where it would be possible to practice philosophy with ideas that have become artworks.

This is a wonderful thought, one that many professional philosophers probably wouldn’t dare to think. Birnbaum and Wallenstein, on the other hand, both have ample experience in the joint margins of art and philosophy. Wallenstein is professor of philosophy at Södertörn University in Stockholm and Birnbaum is director of the digital art platform Acute Art in London, but they have – either together or separately – done everything from curating exhibitions to editing art journals; they have translated art theory and philosophy and taught at art schools and led museums. In Spacing Philosophy, this is visible in how they seamlessly move between genres and manage to establish an intimacy between art and philosophy that I haven’t found in the work of Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Rancière, Boris Groys, or Peter Osborne. Birnbaum and Wallenstein’s book is, therefore, better art philosophy than theirs, more creative and innovative.

When Lyotard received the offer to curate what was to become Les immatériaux (The Immaterials) at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1985, he became the first prominent philosopher to make an exhibition. But what Birnbaum and Wallenstein emphasise is how, as early as the 1970s, Lyotard pointed out that sensuality risks disappearing from thought when philosophy is presented in a book. According to Lyotard, the truth can be captured through internal consistency or reference, but it also has an “aberration”: it deviates from the discursive through its sensuality. And if that side of things is absent, it means that the thought itself becomes alienated form the thinking, which rings false.

Daniel Birnbaum and Sven-Olov Wallenstein, Spacing Philosophy: Lyotard and the Idea of the Exhibition (Sternberg Press, 2019).

The authors repeatedly point out that dissatisfaction with the book as a philosophical form is something that Lyotard shares with other philosophers of the same generation – for example, Gilles Deleuze – and that the exhibition could be seen as a solution to a problem that seems to have been part of the zeitgeist.

The philosophy of Birnbaum and Wallenstein also emerges more clearly in its motivations, sensuality, and desire than before. They are always looking for boundaries, but in a different way than Lyotard – whom they also read completely in relation to the boundaries of his thinking, with an emphasis on where it comes up against obstacles or aporias. Where Lyotard’s boundary is characterised as the transition from the activity of a thought to its radical passivity – which he says is revealed precisely by the impossibility of thinking – where thought is receptive and can achieve something, perhaps a new idea, Birnbaum and Wallenstein’s boundary is in itself receptive or “blurring” (to blur is a prominent verb in the book). Boundaries must be blurred. In the blurred boundary, incompatible thinking must be received and gathered without being reduced to or arranged by a higher concept alien to it; everything must be registered and kept in a state of tension.

It is tempting to imagine that they see this boundary as the site of the aberration of truth and the sensuality of thought, a feeling, a mood, an impression. Contradiction in itself is not even logically a problem, as long as one does not draw a conclusion. With Birnbaum and Wallenstein, perhaps the method is to remain in the tension of the contradiction, as a state of thought, and determine whether it is best to get out of the contradiction by rereading the contradictory philosophers to find a common way out before the contradiction arises. Or, if one instead holds on to the contradiction, it could be an indication that a subject requires a different approach (e.g. through a change of position from philosopher to critic to historian), which allows for the stratification of the space for thought and thought paths thus distributed on different levels.

This is present in all of Birnbaum and Wallenstein’s texts, but this book also elucidates the philosophical foundation for their way of thinking. Since the desire to re-write history has been so prominent in contemporary art, as has the desire to problematise rather than assert, to incorporate new voices rather than move on – all tricks of Birnbaum and Wallenstein’s boundary thinking – their book feels more like a manifestation of the zeitgeist than a historical presentation of ideas.

Birnbaum and Wallenstein aren’t alone in their interest for Les immatériaux, and their interpretation of that exhibition has already been outlined in the anthology, edited by Yuk Hui and Andreas Broeckmann, 30 Years after Les Immatériaux: Art, Science, and Theory (Meson Press, 2015). Let me just point out that their philosophy leads to a daring reading of Lyotard’s exhibition that goes against both his own view and the way its history is written today. The authors motivate this by referring to an unrealised exhibition that the French philosopher was planning, the traces of which they argue can be found in Les immatériaux. Instead of moving from changes in our relationship to the body towards the disembodied world of information technology, that exhibition was conversely going to move from the immateriality of algorithms towards the resistance of the body. As if walking through Les immatériaux in the wrong direction. When going through Lyotard’s presentation of the exhibition plans at Centre Pompidou, I am struck by how right Birnbaum and Wallenstein seem to be. Their exhibition is there, but has so far remained undiscovered because no one else has understood to look and think from the boundary as they understand it – as the place where “both either and or” is the logic that applies.

Installation view from Les immatériaux at Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1985.