Nicolas Bourriaud

Dear Braco Dimitrijević,

In many African communities, the role of the “griot” (travelling black African poet and musician) consists of telling the history of the tribe that gathers together traditionally under the branches of the “tree of endless discussions”. Endless discussions because that story is always a subject to be treated with caution and always a controversial one: never does the “griot” tell the same version of that immensely flexible history. In the Jewish tradition of the Talmud, these discussions are referred to as “pilpul”, which are all the more delightful since the truth is never discovered, which is, by the way, far from being their aim: the commentary itself needs to be commented since objective truth is a result of negotiations. That is quite far from Hegel and his vision of History as “the realization of an idea”, far from the Christian and Marxist-Leninist teleologies, and far from the progressive dogma influencing Western modernism.

In the Middle Ages, theology was considered as an integral science: it is history, the “fake science”, as you call it, that took its place at the level of illusions coagulated into Truths. In both cases, the belief in the absolute sense of the collective narrative crushes the multitude of versions and hypotheses. The world has a meaning, and this meaning is the only one. Conspiracy theories, so fashionable nowadays, reinforce this idea while they claim to oppose it. When you write for the first time, in 1969 that “There are no mistakes in History”, but that “the whole of History is a mistake”, a thesis appearing in your book entitled “Tractatus Post Historicus” published in 1976, you take a step beyond the dogma of the Avant-gardes of the time who perpetuated a banal messianism based on a strict historization of artistic “gestures”.

In your work, since at least the beginning of the 1970s, you have sought to replace this monolithical narrative by the idea of coexisting truths and confuse the tracks that lead to that single line by which the West has imposed its colonial power upon the entire world. Thus, for a long time, humanity lived as if watching only one television channel: you were either within History or totally without it in that anhistorical zone generally allocated to “the savages”, in other words, without any particular importance. Your idea of the “post-history” compares to the invention of channel-hopping: we are talking about switching between different sources of broadcasting, each of which portrays a version of History. In 1912, an international conference confirmed the notion of “universal time” divided into time zones. A century later, the idea of global economy running twenty-four hours a day validates a conception of the universal that does not dare to identify itself any more, promoting, on the contrary, “differences” and multiculturalism (the vernacular or national culture having become fictional) in order to better mask the genuine uniformization implemented by it. What is linked to these two dates is the fiction of a linear history of mankind, a modernist history whose postmodern hypocrisy today consists in arranging the scenery. For the ideology of the “end of history”, inseparable from postmodernism, represents most of all the will to freeze the image in order to neutralize all vague political attempts to transform the world and fix its course on a “new economic order” that would be the final one. In your words, “What we call History is nothing more than one subjectivity imposed on the whole world as objective opinion.” (1)

But when you talk about a “post” state of History, it has nothing to do with its end. Quite on the contrary, your works and your writings incite to an outburst of creativity, a multitude of histories, their versions and their hybridation. Regarding History, Louis Althusser talked about a “process without a subject” in the 1960s: an audacious idea going against the ideologies of the era that could think of no other subject of History than the people or the fighting proletariat. However, post-history has no subject, either. And especially not the Earth itself, Gaia, the maternal idol transformed into a monotheistic ersatz by radical ecologists and New Age groups. The fact that there is no subject for post-history liberates a multitude of subjects, that is, us: as Serge Daney put it, “have we failed to such an extent in replacing God, the father by mankind, the brother that the terrible matriarchy of our mother, the Earth should return?” (2) The “Casual passer-by”, the central theme of your work, this individual that becomes a subject only when encountering the device of inscription implemented by you is the true inhabitant of post-history. In a way, he appears as the tenant of glory, in this respect, he is a contemporary of Warhol’s injunction of “becoming famous for fifteen minutes”.

An animal or some fruit, an ordinary object, a piece of art. In your “post-historical triptychs”, you show that Cézanne or Picasso, whose works we comprehend and evaluate in their relation to a narrative event, in other words, as signals emitted by history, can also be perceived as natural phenomena or tools. A picture by Kazimir Malevich, hatchets placed at an angle, associated to apples put on stands: this arrangement, created in Saint-Petersburg in 2005, imitates the array of colours of the painter whose composition (”Vanka”, 1928-1929) presents a human figure seen from behind in the first place in post-suprematist style, but heading to a much more realistic farm situated in the background of the picture. You have placed your stands in such a way so as to recall the wake of that walking man, and having hung up the painting in one of the corners of the room, you have evoked the first suprematist exhibition in Petrograd in 1915 in which the “Black square on white” by the same Malevich was displayed in a similar position: at the top of the wall and in the corner. And in the most well-known photo of that “historic” exhibition, a chair can be found amongst the works.

Your “post-historical” arrangements evoke the status of the icon, a generic image which assembles three elements that you summon: in “Between eternity and geniuscide” (1994), it is by the way made explicit since you place candles in front of photographical portraits of Kafka and Modigliani, perched on a sea of red beans. This votive dimension constituting the icon assembles in a stable unit, that of the arrangement, the organic, artistic and functional elements that compose the “Triptychs”. Post-history as you see it reveals itself spontaneously in the form of an absolute timelessness of which the icon constitutes the privileged visual framework. Nevertheless, in your work, the timeless is only a precondition to post-history and not its last say. The “zeitlos”, the Eternal, the atemporal, the long historical duration are but some motives, among others, of a vision of time stripped of all imposed figures. In other words, the icon is only a moment of the image: more precisely, the moment of its crossing from historical time to the ambiguity of the timeless.

So which age does that “casual passer-by” belong to that you met in London at eleven twenty-eight on an October morning in 1972? In any case, not to the ordinary one: the day is the only element missing. He belongs to the history of art to the extent that this encounter resulted in a piece of art that eternalizes him; to your personal history for it is your wandering and the fact that you were in London that day that allow him to exist for us. But he also belongs to that chaotic time without chronology in which Malevich encounters an apple and a hatchet to the liking of the chromatic harmonies. André Malraux wrote in “L’Intemporel” that “the Events of a life converge rather than follow each other.” Art is a nave which this convergence may be organized around and which may create coherence that the chronological ideology just cannot perceive. Our memory is a-chronological itself: it wanders in recent times, then in the faraway irrespective of dates. Chronology is nothing more than an idealist version of time that materialism, that of signs and colours, has destroyed in your “post-historical” compositions.

You claim that “There are no ruptures in creation, but only ruptures of perception”. Along the same lines, Paul Valéry thought that you could write a literary history without using the authors’ names, narrating only the modifications that took place in the ways of reading. But time will not necessarily flow from the past towards the future: when writing about Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges considers his work as a historic shock that transforms the past thoroughly; an entire branch of literature emerges as the “forerunner of Kafka”. Similarly, in the 1960s, Georges Perec and OULIPO invented the notion of “plagiarist by anticipating”, which points out the reversible and multidirectional time of culture. With the progress of globalization (that in harmony with the Hegelian tradition, some perceive only as the “end of history”), we are heading towards a civilization exploded into countless fragments. According to that conception of history, the opposite of the idea of universal progress, history is no one-way street; instead, there are local crises, micro-narratives, briefly, a whole of temporal distortions that one needs to learn to read together. To this future archipelago of the world, brought about by globalization, corresponds a new conception of time comprising all the historical narratives, all of the chronologies, the sum of accelerations and slowdowns: in a word, heterochrony. It is a temporality in which time flows from the future towards the past, and from global present towards all the particular times.

In 1967, Robert Smithson elaborated the notion of “ruins in reverse” in relation to his piece entitled “The Monuments of Passaic”. Exploring the uncultivated countryside of the State of New Jersey, Smithson qualifies all recent and future constructions as “ruins in reverse”. Earlier, romantic ruins (the ones that Hubert Robert presented in his paintings) symbolized the flight of time and incited to a nostalgic meditation over the past; the vaguely modernist constructions designed by Smithson, however, are programmed to become ruins even before their existence, the ruins of a modernist ideology in which future and linear scenarios were much more real than the present or the past. Naturally, entropy, that generic notion around which Smithson articulates his work is a slowdown. However, paradoxically, this loss of speed results in the acceleration of the future obsoleteness of these “ruins in reverse”. As Claudio Magris puts it, “There is no one flow of time going at a constant speed into one specific direction; sometimes we pass another train coming from the other direction, from the past and for a moment, we have this past near us, next to us, in our present.” Your post-historic arrangements work like these Smithsonian “ruins in reverse”: they go from the future towards the past, their point of departure being modern art and their destination the Lascaux caves.

The portrait of the “casual passers-by” that you hang up like official posters on the front walls of buildings, designate the possibility of a junction in History: when one is front of them, one is always under the impression of entering a parallel reality or having overslept and inexplicably missed a moment of official History, for this institutional narrative is made up of forgotten things, more or less voluntary omissions, subtle hierarchies and implicit codes. The “casual passers-by” remind us that History is created by all of us and that the essence of mankind, as stated by Karl Marx, is no other than the result of what we do together. As a means and as a territory, your work is a zone of junctions: a space in which history turns back, goes off the rails, makes a false step.

In a way, history ceases to be “universal” when it spatializes, when it demands its own territory: contemporary reality is an open book in which, by turning its pages, artists may simultaneously explore the strata of the past and the traces of the times to come. For modernism, the past represented tradition that the new supplanted. For postmodernism, it was a kind of catalogue or repertoire. Nowadays, it simply constitutes a new area of which the artists are the privileged archaeologists and geographers since they glance through it by going from form to form far from the strictness that the discursive linearity imposes upon thinkers and ideologists. In your work, I admire that obstinacy that is shaped around a strong and premonitory vision. Were you not an artist, you would be a kind of preacher or a travelling monk, the one that knocks in, further and further, a painful, but salutary nail.

(1) in monograph “Braco Dimitrijevic”, Edizione Charta 2006, like all the subsequent quotations. (2) Serge Daney, “L’exercice a été profitable, monsieur”, Éditions POL, page 341.