The Uses of Disorder:
Joe Scanlan on the Work of
The policeman isn't there to create disorder; the policeman is there to preserve disorder.
— Richard J. Daley, mayor of Chicago, 1968
Remember Felix Gonzalez-Torres? The question isn't meant to be facetious. Rather, it is meant to point out how much the workings of politics and culture have changed since Gonzalez-Torres's first exhibitions in the late 1980s — and to start a debate on the role his work has played, if any, in our experience of those changes. I say "start" a debate because, to my mind, Gonzalez-Torres's work has never really been challenged: It never had to persuade skeptics over an extended period of time that it was worth looking at, thinking about, or participating in. In retrospect, it seems that his billboards, light strands, paper stacks, and candy spills were so ingenious and viscerally affective that they could only be embraced, almost immediately and without question, as a kind of egalitarian salvation. Most exemplary in this regard were the untitled paper and candy works, stacks and piles from which anyone could take a piece without returning it or diminishing the firsthand experience of anyone else.
At the same time — and in apparent contradiction with that reception — this process of eternal deferral was a welcome panacea for a ruling class in need of a mechanism by which they could create the appearance of public generosity without having to disturb the supply chain of power. Despite their unusual structure, the works easily joined the smooth flow of everyday objects (and the validation of the common people who use them) into prestigious museums and private collections, a flow that began with the first readymade. Since the inception of Gonzalez-Torres's practice, then, rosy scenarios of democracy, generosity, collective authorship, and empowerment have dominated our discussions of it. Over time, this has collapsed the work's uncomfortable contradictions and intellectual toughness into the charming sculptures we know today. With a major survey of Gonzalez-Torres currently on view at the Wiels Contemporary Art Center in Brussels, we are prompted to revisit the work's legacy and ask: Whose memories, whose records, inflect his work now and in the years to come? Is it the museums that administer his eternally mutable sculptures? The unnamed viewers who experience them and set them in motion? The generation of artists eating cucumber sandwiches in his cool, conceptual shade? Or the millions of avid constituencies scattered across the globe, nonplussed by the travails of Gonzalez-Torres and completely unconcerned about institutional access or cultural politics?
I never met Gonzalez-Torres, but one of the stronger implications of his artworks, his activism, and his words is that he despised facile thinking. It could be said, both in praise and disdain, that his artworks are "perfect," that they are so formally and conceptually airtight as to be unassailable, that they even anticipate their amnesiac embrace today. Gonzalez-Torres himself played a significant role in manufacturing that force field by being his own most vocal critic, demonstrating not only confidence in his own thinking and respect for serious public debate but also exceptional skill at massaging public opinion. His critical intensity pretty much precluded anyone else from questioning his motives or the political economy of his work; dissenters, if there were any, kept their opinions to themselves. And yet, despite this hermetic environment, I can't help but wonder what he would think of the ease with which his artworks are administered today, or how he would feel about the assumptions that have ossified around them. If his work is going to remain vital and relevant, then it is time for those assumptions to be vigorously challenged, and for the works' "dark side" — their affinities with social control and finance and private property — to be discussed.
I like to think that the ambition of Gonzalez-Torres's work was, in fact, to promulgate a beautiful confusion in the art world and in the forms and durations of its property, and to insist that our private desires be fulsome enough to change social relations a little more than the other way around. I still relish his extravagant proposals for confounding the boundaries of love and objects, suggesting that we should obsess about our partner's ideal body weight or forget where our possessions begin and end. Gonzalez-Torres loved to have things: mid-century modern furniture, an authentic Chicago cop jacket, Golden Girls episodes, Walt Disney figurines. But the concepts of property and possession put forward in his work were effusive, liminal, ineffable. They occupied the outer reaches of having: to have memories, to have someone, to have desires.
In the early exhibitions of Gonzalez-Torres, when the parameters were still hazy and there was no one authority, not even the artist, controlling the production and distribution of his work, the sculptures had a plangent, low-budget, potlatch atmosphere in which things were valued in terms of their availability. Whether that atmosphere was the sky around a Sheridan Square billboard or the space between a male dancer's legs, many of us were energized by the twin prospect of valorizing private moments and putting precious objects at risk. That's what we were affirming when we took the paper, ate the candy, danced under the lights. For the artist's 1993 exhibition at Galerie Jennifer Flay in Paris, for instance, a square of hanging lights demarcated a smaller, more intimate zone within the gallery, a spatial delineation made even more intimate if we happened to be there at the same time as someone else and both of us cared to dance, music being provided by a walkman equipped with dual headphones so that only the dancers could hear. We could choose the degree of intimacy with which we wanted to engage Untitled (arena), 1993, but we could not choose whether to experience the piece or not, since we lost that option the moment we entered the exhibition space and found ourselves already within the purview of the work. In a crude sense, Untitled (arena) was a kind of trap that offered refuge only after we had surrendered to the idea of being contained.
How we interpret this "surrender" is important to understanding the public/private tension at the heart of Gonzalez-Torres's work — and how the unseemly power relations of that tension have been suppressed by subsequent artists and curators, if not eliminated altogether. On the one hand, a work like Untitled (arena) explicitly enacts a captive power over its participants: It demarcates a public site and then converts any events that transpire within the site into part of the work, into private property. To experience Untitled (arena) is to be controlled by it; freedom within the piece is choosing what behaviors we will turn over to its coffers of intellectual property. On the other hand, Untitled (arena) also insists on the possibility, however vestigial or frail, of a private sanctuary within this domain. We can be part of the piece and still choose to have inner thoughts and feelings that are independent of our outward captivity, a psychological privatization analogous to the literal privatization of taking a sheet of paper or piece of candy home with us. Dancing to music that only we can hear is a poignant example of this intimate form of resistance, a diversionary tactic characterized by a much discussed concept at the time, Michel de Certeau's "la perruque" or "wig," in which the outward appearance of acceptable behavior disguises ulterior motives. But the most important characteristic of this dynamic is the refusal of Untitled (arena) or Gonzalez-Torres himself to appear acquisitive or powerful at all. This too is a kind of "wig," a controlled ethos of casualness that conceals not only its intentions but also the act of concealment itself. The art and persona of Gonzalez-Torres thus mark an important transformation in the style and atmosphere of power, from the ordinal authority of modern capitalism to the pseudo-communitarianism of today. If the formal properties of 1960s Minimalism — hardness, geometry, impenetrability, silence — were aligned with those of the military industrial complex,  then forty years later Gonzalez-Torres's work exhibits precisely the inverse properties — flexibility, organicism, accessibility, eloquence — and yet is aligned with the same thing: the dominant social order. Gonzalez-Torres's signal accomplishment was his realization that the most expansive, pervasive way to amass power is to not seem powerful at all.
These very features of Gonzales-Torres's work parallel those of the Internet economy, where superficial, user-friendly atmospheres mask deeper emotional and psychological manipulations. In the startup days of any social network like BitTorrent, Facebook, or Twitter, part of the appeal is the excitement of feeling responsible for the construct by simply participating — and encouraging your friends to participate as well, since greater activity strengthens the construct and increases its functionality. How the construct can or will become profitable is a mystery to everyone involved, and this mystery is another part of its appeal. Everyone is free to pursue their own ends and these motivations are their own reward. Of course, joining the network requires surrendering your right to the value of any data your activities there might produce. Once enough similar people are involved in the construct for their activities to be representative of this or that demographic — if not the population as a whole — that information is aggregated by the construct's administrators and sold to corporations who use it to make branding, marketing, and product design decisions. This process, data mining, is politically interesting since it presupposes that any single individual is an aberration (and therefore worthless) until that person's interests can be seen to conform to the interests of others. A peculiar type of labor is thus performed: Participants in the construct produce data that the construct is incapable of producing on its own; although this production is mutual, the profits from it are not shared. The more individuals assent to keeping the construct active and conforming to its participatory logic, the more their willingness is leveraged against them to preordain their consumer desires.
In hindsight, we know this pleonexia was endemic to the strategy of Gonzalez-Torres and his gallerist, Andrea Rosen, taking full economic advantage of the certifiable ambiguities in his work. I can only admire their acuity. Having activated a chameleonic kind of artwork, one that is able to adapt to whatever power and money might accrue to the idea of an artwork being able to adapt — a perfect fiduciary tautology! — Gonzalez-Torres's works remain as impressive and beguiling as ever. Indeed, we might think of his art as an indeterminate social enterprise bounded by legally crafted "what-ifs," in which the public appearance of any one artwork is contingent on the interpretation of its certificate of authenticity. In this sense, the more Gonzales-Torres's work has evolved over the years, the more we have trusted it to evolve, and the more we are invested in the symbolic value of that trust. In their book The New Spirit of Capitalism, French sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello argue that trust has become a form of self-control, a business development of the 1990s necessitated by corporate management structures that were growing more scattered and diverse. With the desire for greater operating efficiencies (and profits) rendering top-down hierarchies obsolete, Boltanski and Chiapello observe that "the only solution is for people to control themselves, which involves transferring constraints from external organizational mechanisms to people's internal dispositions, and for the powers of control they exercise to be consistent with the firm's general project." Whether induced to work unsupervised or to take a piece of candy from Untitled (Republican Years), 1991, trust is a moral issue.
The problem with this contemporary moral rubric and, in a much more benign sense, with some of Gonzalez-Torres' works is that it institutionalizes unequal burdens of responsibility for entities of unequal means. Since the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980 — and continuing through Deregulation (Recession), Appropriation Theory, Iran Contra, Jeff Koons, the Savings and Loan Bailout (Recession), Don't Ask Don't Tell, Hans Ulrich-Obrist, the Contract With America, Workfare, Bilbao, Jorge Pardo, the Dot.com Bubble (Recession), the Patriot Act, Kelley Walker, the Iraq War, the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (BAPCPA), the Housing Bubble, Richard Prince, The Financial Crisis (Recession), and Healthcare Reform — proper behavior has been encouraged in the masses (if not legislated) to a far greater degree than it has been in the ruling class, reinforcing a neo-Calvinist ethic in which power naturally remains with a chosen few. The only way weaker entities can gain legitimate access to power is by demonstrating the proper moral discipline, after which morality and its attendant virtues — trust, loyalty, patriotism, faith — become relative. We need only look at the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which allows homosexuals to serve provided they keep their sexuality to themselves; or the BACPA law of 2005, in which individual access to bankruptcy protection was made much more difficult while credit card solicitation and predatory lending were left unchecked; or the fact that a shrinking job market and an even more ruinous public education system tacitly produce a permanent underclass of citizens for whom "voluntary" military service is the most viable economic option, provided they don't get killed in one of our equally permanent wars.
As it has come to be administered by museums, private collectors, and the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, the artist's work raises a parallel question: that of cultural agency being granted in inverse proportion to the people responsible for it. Several years ago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York exhibited Gonzalez-Torres's Untitled (placebo), 1991, a work consisting of more than one thousand pounds of individually wrapped candies gifted to the museum by Elisa and Barry Stevens. Unexpectedly, a lovely ad hoc "revolt" developed during its display. This being MoMA — or any museum, for that matter — visitors were happy to take a piece of candy from the array, but there was nothing to do with the wrapper, so they started returning the empty cellophanes to the sculpture before leaving the gallery. It was a classic case of initially aberrant behavior gradually becoming the normal, socially acceptable thing to do. But I don't think the visitors' behavior was simply about finding a practical solution to a minor moment of doubt. It seems unlikely that people would refuse to carry such an inobtrusive bit of matter with them until they could find a place to throw it away, or that they threw it back as a subtle assertion of their role in the piece — as a somewhat perverse arrogation — making a point of not carrying trash around and plainly leaving it for the museum (and the artwork) to deal with. Instead, I like to think they saw it as an opportunity to alter the sculpture by reconfiguring its material, giving back to the work and remaking it in their own image as its consumers and catalysts — strangely coinciding with a core concept in Gonzalez-Torres's oeuvre, that of the "trace." The wrapper revolt was a delicate undoing, a slow chemical reaction that took place as the wrappers accumulated over time, a misty halo developing, wraithlike, over the plain of sweets. It was beautiful! It was also a problem. MoMA and the Foundation decided that the trend was detrimental and worked out a comprehensive maintenance plan for future displays, not only of Untitled (placebo) but of all the candy sculptures (now, if a discreet trash receptacle cannot be installed near the installation, then the artwork must be groomed by museum staff on a daily basis). Visitors were deemed to have exceeded their authority as participants and to have been adversely affecting others' experience of the piece, not to mention literally altering the appearance of an artwork in MoMA's permanent collection.
If no one had accepted Gonzalez-Torres's initial offer to participate in his work, none of this would matter; we would probably never have seen the work again. But we did, and we continue to, so what do we have to show for our labor? Honor, duty, service, patriotism — the same intangible human qualities attributed to Teddy Roosevelt on a monument located at the New York Museum of Natural History, virtues that Gonzalez-Torres reposed in a haunting suite of photographs titled Untitled (Natural History), 1993, leaving us free to wonder whether such traits supersede actual material wealth or whether they are made all the more noble by a surplus of it. (For Roosevelt, the latter was the case.) One of the great unacknowledged truths in Gonzalez-Torres's work, and in the chronic denigration of material pleasure in art in general, is that the call for nobler ambitions almost always comes from people with guaranteed incomes (of whom it can be said, if nothing else, that at least they know first-hand the evils of which they speak). It is a feigned pecuniary abstinence that earnest young radicals (and a few middle-aged ones) still seem to find irresistible, and many of them point to Gonzalez-Torres, Jenny Holzer, Michael Asher, or Kara Walker as role models in their pursuit of a more democratic and righteous art.
Few curatorial practices have owed as much to Gonzalez-Torres as that of Nicolas Bourriaud, whose serial treatises on relational aesthetics, postproduction, and precariousness ostensibly all have Gonzalez-Torres — his politics, working methods, and formal instability — at their base. I have a begrudging admiration for Bourriaud in that he has a consistent ability to put his finger on timely and sensitive topics, which almost mitigates his specious treatment of them. (If Bourriaud were a doctor you would want him to diagnose your appendix, but you probably wouldn't want him to cut it out.) Bourriaud cites Gonzalez-Torres as a founding influence in his book Relational Aesthetics, but he represses the covetous side of the artist's private/public dialectic in exchange for that narrower tension that exists between two publics: the pragmatic decorum of institutional practice and the utopian social interactions that the time and space of a given exhibition might allow. From its birth in "Traffic" at the CAPC Bourdeaux in 1995 to its demise in "theanyspacewhatever" at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 2008, Relational Aesthetics promoted a forced conviviality and a shared material paucity that cracked as soon as each of its loosely affiliated artists had too much at stake. Ironically, an aesthetic that strived to move beyond the two-hundred-year-old golem of the Individual was undone by some of the individuals the aesthetic helped create. So it was telling that the two best works in "theanyspacewhatever"— Maurizio Cattelan's Daddy Daddy, 2008, and Rirkrit Tiravanija's video Chew the Fat, 2008 — each invoked two possible escapes from (and repressed tendencies of) the narrow confines of Relational Aesthetics: one a congenital liar floating face down in Frank Lloyd Wright's Hitchcockian reflecting pool, the other a languorous stream of interviews with the show's contributing artists, each luxuriating in the charming disorder of their private spaces and personal mannerisms.
If art is actually to pursue democracy as a goal — and if this goal ever had anything to do with the work of Gonzalez-Torres — then I think it can be achieved through ways other than institutional largesse or the martyrdom of the object. It seems unimaginative and counterproductive to define democracy as abstemiousness, as "everybody gets nothing," as if we're supposed to subsist on polite conversation and community involvement alone. I've never fully understood why so-called democracy in art requires a public disavowal of material pleasure and sensual intimacy, except for the fact that most funding guidelines require that art "impact" as many people as possible. In the process of achieving greater impact — such a strange, martial term! —democracy and art often get reduced to the blunt instrument of majoritarianism, a common cudgel that annihilates the possibility of either democracy or art being understood as a fractious and liberating plurality.
In his 1970 book The Uses of Disorder, sociologist Richard Sennett made a brave case for valorizing everything that seemed to be going wrong in society at that time. He proposed that all forms of social disorder, whether charming, confusing, disruptive, or violent, were evidence of mature citizens engaging with the discomfort of their surroundings rather than withdrawing to the comfort their homes — or, more likely at the time, to a leafy suburb. In Sennett's view, being compelled to rub up against opinions and customs that are different from our own and choosing to tolerate (if not embrace) those differences builds character, broadens the mind, and strengthens the bonds of local communities and society as a whole, no matter how fractured their fabrics may seem. But one use of disorder that did not occur to Sennett, one perhaps unimaginable at the time, was that disorder could be co-opted, controlled, and even staged for the purpose of contriving divergent points of view. Nor did he imagine that the radical tenets of post-Minimal, Process, and Performance art would presage our "anything goes" experience economy. This was the gist of one of Gonzalez-Torres's sharper invectives against the street protesters of the first Iraq War, whose public actions were simply used by the first Bush administration as proof that free speech and democracy were alive and well. Protesting the war was just a part of going to war, along with strategic planning, killing people, and having a parade.
How to avoid, if not defer as long as possible, becoming just another vertebrae in the Ouroboric art world cycle of unity, iconoclasm, complicity, abjection? Inspired by the sheer financial ambit of Gonzalez-Torres's private property, as well as by the clear-eyed precedents of Piero Manzoni, Marcel Broodthaers, Sonic Youth, and General Idea, upstart retail spaces like castillo/corrales, Dexter/Sinister and Ooga Booga approach the idea of giving everyone an equal responsibility in the production of art and an equal stake in its interpretation the old-fashioned way: by selling it to them. Ooga Booga is a store run by Wendy Yao in the Chinatown neighborhood of Los Angeles that features mostly small-run clothing, objects, products and books with no differentiation between the cultural value of artists, writers or designers. One recent display, for example, featured a selection of wares hidden in the pockets of an overcoat hung on a hook in the store; customers were free to rifle through them, Chaplin-like, to see if there was anything they wanted to buy, or just to reciprocate such discreet promiscuity. At castillo/corrales, the proprietors themselves are often the inadvertent commodities on display in their storefront in the Belleville section of Paris, where curator François Piron, critic Thomas Boutoux, writer Benjamin Thorel and artist Oscar Tuazon can be found discussing books, installing shows, editing manuscripts or advising curators who've stopped by the cozy, two-hundred-square-foot space. The undercapitalized but well diversified gallery / bookstore / curatorial office / publishing house is named after an infamous superfeatherweight boxing match that took place in Las Vegas in 2005, when Diego Corrales took a merciless beating for nine rounds only to rebound miraculously and knock out José Luis Castillo in the tenth.
What attracts me to these outmoded and rather personal instantiations of commerce is their quixotic insistence on "the store" as a mutable thing in itself, a tensile venture that is intriguing precisely because it doesn't make much sense. The day-to-day operations of a bricks-and-mortar store or isn't what concerned young artists are supposed to be doing these days—that is, unless you find the punctual satisfaction of crisp commercial transactions a welcome counterpoint to more open-ended (and less remunerative) forms of engagement. Putting handsome, disruptive products in the hands of dozens of people every week is one way to alter your political outlook, your views of culture, and maybe even your life. In a strange way, the counterintuitive optimism of such intimate commercial enterprises seems closer to the spirit of Gonzalez-Torres than his self-proclaimed and more publicized successors, who seized on the participatory aspects of his work as a kind of election to be won by the artist or curator who garners the most votes. In contrast, Ooga Booga and Castillo/corrales are concerned with engaging far fewer people on a more intimate basis than major museums or social networks would deem worthwhile. That is the disorder they accomplish, no matter how small their constituencies may be. 
Art is not for everyone. Gonzalez-Torres always claimed that his work was for one person, Ross, or for five or six people at most. But he also asserted that he didn't have any interest — ever — in being marginal or "alternative" to anything. Like the work of all originally subversive and great artists, Gonzalez-Torres's work is now mostly incredibly beautiful. But a key part of that beauty, beyond the sparkle and powder blue, is the Gordian knot of contradictions that are inherent to his chosen materials and their actuarial control cycles. For routine paper and candy, billboards and beads, light bulbs and clocks, that's achievement enough. That the political potency of Gonzalez-Torres' work has atrophied but its beauty has not, however, demonstrates how timeless is beauty and how brief are notions of political access and cultural power in a technologically advanced society. It also confirms the class differences inherent in that inevitability — after all, Ars longa, vita brevis is rich people's thinking. Given that the Internet only became widely available in the last full year of Gonzalez-Torres's life — and given the massive effect it has had on egalitarian reproduction and distribution — it is dubious to maintain that Gonzalez-Torres's sculptures are egalitarian or even generous in our time. But taking a piece of them can still bristle with subversive empowerment, with private thrill. We can't know what anyone thinks or feels the moment they interact with one of his pieces, let alone what becomes of their memory once that person returns home. My heart still aches whenever I see Untitled (Perfect Lovers), 1991, or Untitled (North), 1993; for me there is no other artist who affects so much with so little, and it remains stunning that profound emotional intensity can be evoked by such spare forms. It hardly matters to me personally that I can take a piece for free, and in any case the intellectual property of that act is not my own. At best this option to "share" the work seems blankly commemorative: a memento rasa for Gonzalez-Torres; or for Ross Laycock, his life partner; or for the very idea that art needs to be administered in order to exist.
1. On the certificates of authenticity devised by Gonzalez-Torres and Andrea Rosen, which outline the guidelines and variables for manifesting the sculptures, see Miwon Kwon, "The Becoming of a Work of Art: FGT and a Possibility of Renewal, a Chance to Share, A Fragile Truce," in Julie Ault, ed., Felix Gonzalez-Torres (Gottingen and New York: Steidldangin Publishers and the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, 2006), 281–314.
2. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984), 24–28.
3. For some, a critique of Gonzalez-Torres's works on the basis of the forms of power they resemble might itself resemble art historian Anna Chave's critique of Minimalism and the rhetoric of power. I don't think this is the case, however, one crucial difference being that Chave's critique was based on fixed material objects that were ostensibly unchanged from their creation to the time of her writing, which reads suspiciously like a conclusion only interested in research that supports it. I think the critique being offered here, on the other hand, is relative, one based on the continually evolving forms and affects of Gonzalez-Torres's work and showing how that ongoing movement relates to similarly open-ended developments in society. See Anna Chave, "Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power," Arts magazine, vol. 64, no. 5 (January 1990): 44–63.
4. Kwon, 294.
5. Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2006), 75.
6. For an excellent layman's analysis of how this "bait and switch" functions in wholesale American politics, see Thomas Frank, What's The Matter With Kansas? (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004).
7. Nicholas Bourriaud, "Joint pleasance and availability: the theoretical legacy of Felix Gonzalez-Torres," in Relational Aesthetics (Dijon: Les presses du reel, 2002), 54. Bourriaud attributes Philippe Parreno with the idea of art being the "happy ending" to the process of an exhibition.
8. The various social functions and ambitions of art museums have coalesced under a wide banner called The New Institutionalism. For a concise introduction to this term and its parameters see Alex Farquharson, "Bureau de change," Frieze, no. 101 (Sept. 2006): 156–69.
9. Richard Sennett, The Uses of Disorder (New York: Knopf, 1970).
10. Robert Nickas and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, "Felix Gonzalez-Torres: All the Time in the World," in Ault, 43. Originally published in Flash Art, no. 161 (Nov.-Dec. 1991): 86–89.
11. Reyner Banham wrote a particularly dignified broadside on the political economy of consumption as one of his regular columns for New Society. See Banham, "Rank Values," in A Critic Writes: Essays by Rayner Banham, Mary Banham, Paul Barker et al, eds. (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: The University of California Press, 1996), 175–179. Originally published in New Society, October 5, 1972, 50. The essay, dedicated to the closing of a stock-car racetrack in rural England, is a succinct indictment of the fact that while leisure class destruction of property is seen as noble, even gallant, working class destruction is "rank."
12. See Maurizio Cattelan, "Maurizio Cattelan Interviews Felix Gonzalez-Torres," Mousse Magazine, www.moussemagazine.it/articolo.mm?id=59; Nickas and Gonzalez-Torres, 49.
13. See Peter Schjeldahl, "Warhol and Class Content," in Hydrogen Jukebox: Collected Writings 1968–1990 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991), 51.