Interview With Alex Villar By Oyvind Renberg
Oyvind: here are some questions, I hope I have understood the concept of Foucault's panopticon and heterotopies correctly. Go as wide (or narrow) as you wish in elaborating on the answers. Please try to be clear about dates, referring to works by titles, and explaining concepts. If there are concepts you wish to discuss that cannot be introduced by the questions that I am posing, you could formulate some questions yourself.
Alex: ever since you proposed this interview, I've revisited in my mind the one too many interviews that I have read. Most of them don't manage to escape, or even fully cooperate with, the construction of a master subject. Interviews in general carry the pretense of dispensing with mediation by going direct to the source. As if the direct questioning of the author about the intention behind the work would reveal its real meaning. My thoughts here did not anticipate the work nor simply came to exist after the fact; they maintain a non-synchronic relationship of interdependency with the work.
Oyvind: You make photographs and videos where your body intervenes in rather odd public spaces, such as in between subway turnstiles, inside dust bins, climbing through broken fences or between the wall and handrail of a subway station. Could you elaborate on the intentions behind these actions?
Alex: I am obsessed with something I will call gap, as a kind of shorthand for a significantly more varied set of situations. The gap, as I see it, is this instance in an otherwise thoroughly controlled environment where interruption can be proposed. I am referring to a kind of methonymic interruption. Literally speaking, I usually look for spaces like the ones you mentioned that is, spaces that are not conceived to be used in such way if at all. These are not spaces outside the field of vision of most city users. Precisely the opposite is true; these marginal spaces are located next to or in between sites of frequent use. In other words, mine is not an attempt to draw attention to an abandoned periphery. I've been occupied with marginal spaces located in the very center. Resistance is to be articulated from the inside.
Now, intention is a tricky concept because it seems to suggest a direct relation of consequence between idea and action when I believe that what occurs is more akin to a play between conflicting desires. On the one hand, there is the desire to adhere to a norm, to adapt, to go along, to act without thinking, to be everyone and no one in particular. On the other hand, we find the desire to deviate from the norm, to remain other, to disagree, to think about what we are doing, to be absolutely unique. I think that in my work I articulate the duality of a subject that has been trained to behave in a certain way and that, at the same time, resists this process. I believe that agency can be developed from this almost immanent resistance, from this inability on the part of the subject to conform completely to pre-established designs. These small pockets of dissent are what I am calling gaps and it is what my actions are driving at.
Oyvind: You refer to Michel Foucault's terms 'Panopticon and Heterotopic spaces' in your writing. The Panopticon is used by Foucault as a metaphor for a state-system of control over its citizens through geography and architecture, Heterotopies being spaces escaping this system (such as cinemas and graveyards). Could you explain the significance of these concepts in your work?
Alex: The significance of the Panopticon to my own practice has to do with its role in the uniformization of bodies in space to accomplish their effective administration. I am concerned with this particular way in which subjectivization takes place: the moment when the subject's range of spatial possibilities becomes reduced to a narrow number of preconceived paths. Understanding how uniformization takes place can also point out the way in which the process can be reverted. A cursory look at some of these concepts can shed some light on what I mean. Foucault introduced the notion of the Panopticon by describing Jeremy Bentham's invention as a model of surveillance that could accommodate "a madman, a patient, a condemned man, a worker or a schoolboy."1
To this architectural description he added that the Panopticon should be understood as "the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form."2 Foucault makes clear that the Panopticon is to be understood not simply as an architectural contraption but as a technology of power, a means by which a variety of situations can be administered precisely without the direct intervention of the state. It is a way for power, by means of its acquired dispersion, to become multiple and selfregulating. While he doesn't fully expel out what he meant by diagram, we can resort to Deleuze for the clue. In his book on Foucault he describes the diagram as being "no longer an auditory or visual archive but a map, a cartography that is coextensive with the whole social field."3 The distinction is subtle but significant. Rather than a static representation of spatial relations that is, an architectural plan the Panopticon should be seen as an active map, a means of deploying a number of power relations in space. Deleuze also clarifies Foucault's deployment of the Panopticon as the figure of a technology of power when he says, "the abstract formula of Panopticism is no longer to see without being seen but to impose a particular conduct on a particular human multiplicity We need only insist that the multiplicity be reduced and confined to a tight space and that the imposition of a form of conduct be done by distributing in space, laying out and serializing in time, composing in space-time, and so on." In other words, to impose upon selected groups of varied subjects a regulated degree of uniformity.
Now, regarding the Heterotopia, I would like to propose that we dissociate it from a direct polarization with the Panopticon. The risk here is that we replace a complex means of understanding power relations with a binary distinction too simple to tackle the complexity of the problem at hand. I don't see the Heterotopia so much as the escape from the control of the Panopticon as much as the indication of a state of potentiality. Certainly the potentiality to resist control and invert relationships of power as Foucault suggests when he says that he is interested in those sites "that have the curious property of being in relation with all the other sites, but in such a way as to suspect, neutralize, or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect."4 Without its activation as a site of resistance for example by proposing that we overflow its contained borders the Heterotopia remains as a valve of escape for society, allowing its undisturbed functioning. In other words, the Heterotopia in itself is not a guarantee of contestation but it could be invested in such way given its strategic location within the system from which it deviates. This is of course resistance from inside the system, from within the administered site, simultaneously with the control being experienced, not from an imaginary place at a future time.
The signification of the notion of Heterotopia to my own work coincides with the two points I have outlined here: first, the identification of sites that present a potential to promote dissent and second, the understanding that resistance can only operate by means of a reversal of the power mechanisms that control and construct the subject.
Oyvind: The titles 'Other spaces' (which is the name of a Foucault text) and 'Other Ways' seem to indicate this escape from the control of the Panopticon, I guess I am viewing control here as inhibition on several levels through trends, norms, discrimination, attitudes, laws. Other Spaces' was a series of works. Perhaps you can say something about these issues in relation to this series?
Alex: In these works I speculate about the possibility that the subject disagrees by imagining slight displacements in the behavior that, as I see it, consolidates the subject's consent to be managed in such way. In Foucault's terms, the presence of violence attests that power has ceased to be effective. In a power relation, control is exercised by means of an internalized agreement with a set of given conditions. Simply put, the subject needs to agree to be governed. While this internalized aspect of the power relation might give the impression of a lost cause, I prefer to read it, following Foucault, as an indication that the subject has been endowed with power. It is certainly up to the subject to carry out and multiply the effects of power. Precisely because of that, the subject also has the power to alter the pre-meditated course of action it has been presented with. What my pieces indicate is not quite an escape from control, They point back at the subject as itself the site of struggle and suggest that, in slight ways, larger alterations could take place.
Oyvind: The intimate scale of your actions gives me a notion of the struggle of 'the invisible individual' I mean they are not grand gestures calling for mass revolution. Still, they seem strongly political.
Alex: I agree with Giorgio Agamben when he suggests, by quoting a parable recounted by Walter Benjamin, "It is sufficient to displace this cup or this brush or this stone just a little, and thus everything."5 Furthermore, if it is true, as Toni Negri and Michael Hardt have it, that now the primary site of struggle is the production and regulation of subjectivity, then a tiny detour in the subject's performance might indeed have enormous consequences.6
Oyvind: Another issue related to this, is the aspect of social deviance. If you were to do your actions outside of the art context, you would probably stand out as a lunatic, an outcast. This of course brings up the potency of these actions you articulate our fear of standing out, being different. Do you have any thoughts on the larger political implications of such a reading of your work?
Alex: The larger political implications of my work might indeed remain tiny. Insofar as, to go back to Agamben, the proposition is that "everything [should] be as it is now, just a little different."7 What might seem small can have a large effect, like for example our small, everyday fears. The fear of being different can function as a mechanism of self-regulation, a means of preventing the subject from confronting her/his ultimate alterity. I believe that this otherness, which is inherent to the subject, already contains the potential for deviance. It is, of course, not a matter of deviance for its own sake nor is it for the sake of escaping control entirely. Deleuze states this question best when he says that "The problem is not that of being free but of finding a way out, or even a way in, a hallway, an adjacency"8 If, as Foucault shows, there is no place outside power, then resistance should be built up from the small gap that exists between the power that works through us and our own inability to subject ourselves completely. Occupying this adjacency might simply mean to perform our difference where one would think we shouldn't. But I don't think my work is proposing a model. It would be ludicrous to ask people to engage in the activities I depict in my pieces and suggest that they would be accomplishing the things we speak about here.
What I think the pieces do is to indicate that the emphasis should be placed on performativity. I am employing this term in the sense that the linguist J.L. Austin conceives of the performative, that is, as "words that directly accomplish an act and change a state of things merely by being said."9 Let me reverse Judith Butler's assertion that "speech act is a bodily act" to bodily act as speech to suggest that we understand the way in which the body acts as itself language.10 Therefore, a shift in bodily performance could accomplish similar changes to the ones Austin suggests certain words could. I am reminded of Foucault's thesis on his first volume of the history of sexuality, opposing Wilhelm Reich's notion of sexual repression.11 Foucault, continuing on the ground of his previous work on discursive analysis, conceived of the historical developments in sexuality in the western world not as a prohibition but rather as a series of dispositives of control of the body that operated through an ever more abundant network of discourses. In other words, he established the link between discourse and body activity so necessary to understand the configuration of a bio power. What I have been attempting to do in my work is to look at the linkage between discourse and body activity through the reverse angle of the one power is operating from, that is, from the standpoint of resistance or counteraction.
Oyvind: In terms of other, Heterotopic spaces, how do you consider the art context, for instance the gallery?
Alex: I understand art in particular and, by extension, the entire field of culture as a territory of struggle between different positions. Under this light, the museum, or the gallery, is not necessarily on the opposite side of a critical position. It is not a matter of throwing out what was accomplished in the recent past but of understanding how the current context has shifted the paradigm of institutional critique. Mion Kwon provides a good overview of the art historical developments in site-specific art practices and the particular problems they confront. She also proposes an alternative paradigm that she characterizes as 'relational specificity,' which she describes as "addressing the differences of adjacencies and distances between one thing, one person, one place one thought, one fragment next to one another."12 It is an interesting proposition if you consider it in relation to the position already present in Foucault and now further developed by Negri and Hardt that "There is no longer a place that can be recognized as outside."13 They qualify their statement when they say elsewhere "today the enclosures that used to define the limited space of the institutions have broken down so that the logic that once functioned primarily within the institutional walls now spreads across the entire social terrain."14 That being the case then as Negri and Hardt also say "we must be against in every place"15
The question I would like to pose to myself shall leave the answer relatively opened since it is not a question for an answer I already have. How (not what) does the representation constituted by any of my pieces come to be read by the viewer?
I tend to reject the purely intellectual type of engagement I see as possible on the part of a viewer that is presented with a metaphor in favor of what I see as a more complex possibility of engagement allowed by metonymy. A metaphor is a complete world in itself which can only be linked to the things to which it refers by means of interpretation. A metonymy is an open equation that can only be closed if the code, that regulates the linking of a word to another for which it stands, is known. It is not necessarily a secret since the code can already be circulating in the culture~ but metonymies do retain a certain degree of opacity an almost tautological quality as representation, that is, to some extent we can say that they represent themselves. I think that the actions in my pieces are such activities, i.e,, they largely represent themselves. The activities I perform are not simply signifiers for another condition outside themselves. They are not metaphors. At the same time they are metonymycally linked to other situations in the world, that is, by means of the ability which certain statements have to stand for another while remaining themselves. What I believe, or wish occurs is that when the viewer confronts such statement, s/he will look back at her/himself to understand where s/he stands in relation to it. At this point we have not solely a subject who thinks but also an embodied thinking subject. I am not trying to slant the balance in favor of phenomenological cognitions only to achieve a balance between the several means through which the subject can engage with the work. Obviously the viewer will, at the same time, attempt to decipher the statement. But if we can deter the immediateness of this process to allow the viewers to loop back to themselves, then perhaps the safety mechanisms that are present in discourse could be prevented from normalizing the slight displacements proposed by the work.
Michael Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), p.200. ↩
Ibid, p.205. ↩
Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, trans. and ed. Sean Hand (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), p.34. ↩
Michel Foucault, Of Other Spaces, in Diacritics 16-1~ Spring 1986, reprinted in Documenta X- the book: politics poetics, eds. Catherine David ad Jean Francois Chevrier, (Qstfildem: Cantz-Verl, 1997), pp.262-272. ↩
Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), p.53. ↩
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), p.321. ↩
Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), p.53. ↩
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, ↩
Quoted in Brian Massumi~ A User's Guide to Capitalism and schizophrenia: Deviations form Deleuze and Guattari (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1999), p.29. ↩
Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (New York: Routledge, 1997), p.ll. ↩
Michel Foucault Histoire de la Sexualite: La Volonte de Savoir ↩
(Paris: Galimard, 1976).
Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity, in October Magazine, number 80 (Cambridge: MIT Press, Spring 1997), p.54. ↩
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), p.211. ↩
Ibid, p.196. ↩
Ibid, p.211. ↩
@ oyvind Renberg/ Alex villar 2002
Interview conducted via email Aug. - Nov. 01~ Oslo/New York
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