Monday, February 21, 2011

Virtuosity and the Survival of the Subject: on Catherine Sullivan (in Afterall)

Afterall 26 just came out, and features an essay I wrote on Catherine Sullivan, "Virtuosity and the Survival of the Subject: on Catherine Sullivan." Check it out in bookstores or here:

Catherine Sullivan’s work involves nothing less than the problematic of virtuosity. The virtuosic as it pertains to performance history (film and theatre), but also, to quote the Italian philosopher Paolo Virno, the virtuosity of ‘post-Fordist’ labour practices, practices which entail an ‘immaterial’, ‘living labour’ of the contemporary subject. Before I come to Sullivan’s oeuvre, however, let me dwell on Virno’s notion of virtuosity for a moment. To be a virtuoso, in the traditional sense, is to be able to perform a score in some extraordinary way. In Virno’s book A Grammar of the Multitude (2004), he poses the question: ‘If the entirety of post-Fordist labor is productive (of surplus-value) labour precisely because it functions in a political-virtuosic manner, then the question to ask is this: What is the script of their linguistic-communicative performances?’ What, in other words, constitutes the score which the contemporary labourer qua subject performs and how do the conditions of the contemporary labourer qua virtuoso – whose product is immaterial – differ from the conditions of labour which preceded them, those in which a visible ‘product’ or ‘object’ was produced? How, likewise, does one judge the value of ‘work’ when what is produced are affects or ideas, and when this production process relies on improvisation? Virno and his contemporaries, the Autonomists, provide a number of concepts which I believe can help us approach contemporary art practices, and particularly the practices of artists who make the connection between labour and performance explicit through their works. What might connect contemporary labour and live art are questions of virtuosic labour – contemporary live art being both reflective and critical of practices of virtuosity in the global work place.

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