Issue #54 Response to Grant Kester’s “The Device Laid Bare”

Response to Grant Kester’s “The Device Laid Bare”

E. C. Feiss

Issue #54
April 2014

In response to Grant Kester’s “The Device Laid Bare: On Some Limitations in Current Art Criticism,”1 I have some concerns about the characterization of my work, but more importantly, it seems there is perhaps another “device” to be laid bare here, at the risk of being stale. As Anselm Frank writes in issue #8 of this journal, “critique, itself a modern practice, has entered into the often lamented crisis we currently face, foregrounding its complicities in upholding the power of the critiqued, corresponding to the specific ways in which transgression confirms, rather than undoes, the law of boundaries.”2

As a tearing down rather than a systemic overhaul, Kester’s essay is inseparable from the canonical critical structures he seeks to unseat. The most convincing aspects of the text function to “reveal” the genealogy, and therefore the inherited limitations, of art criticism today—the aim therefore is to de-naturalize, conforming, in part, to the device it simultaneously sought to dismantle. Overwhelmingly, because it positions itself as an antagonist to October and its more recent derivatives, Kester’s text preserves precisely the role of the art critic that “dialogical practice” (to use his term) challenges and arguably makes redundant: both the status of the critic as an un-implicated analyst as well as the progressivist notion that a single critical tact must overtake current practice, replacing it to become the definitive mode of appraisal is undone by projects which involve complex relationships with their constituents. Not to mention the economy of high stakes and low salaries that this article participates in without acknowledgment: How can a text on “current art criticism” make no mention of the vast change in conditions for the appearance of writing on art—the change in platforms as well as financial viability—since the founding of October in 1976?

Kester calls for a replacement of the model of the October critic with one in which the critic undertakes what he terms a “field-based approach,” as if the practice of ethnography were uncontested or not in crisis itself. Frank’s essay also serves to remind us that the history of imperialism is inseparable from the discipline of anthropology—the anthropologists he draws on grapple with how to approach the notion of “fieldwork” and its subsequent representation and use. Particularly as Kester is proposing the use of an undefined notion of “fieldwork” in the analysis of socially engaged art practices, which are described as “inspired by, or affiliated with, new movements for social and economic justice around the globe,” the question of the historical and present-day relationship between anthropology and colonial power seems necessary to negotiate.

As Frank concludes, where the “border of the political” is at stake—beyond, in this instance, the internal conflicts specific to art criticism (the occasional moving of the goal posts)—divergent critical strategies are necessary. While I don’t purport to have an answer for what those strategies may be, it is clear that Kester replaces the reveal of a “device” with the “laying bare” of fundamental truths in his proposition for recording “the actual, rather than the hypothetical, experience of participants” within the social work of art. While speaking the language of power, impressing upon critics the need to report on the “moments” of agency and upset, these conflicts are framed as confined to the “actual experience” of the project, whereby the hierarchical foundations (what I would argue to be the border of the political here) of any gathering of people for change or exchange are purified from the critical undertaking. In the space of art, all participation is rendered, if not equal, at least divorced from power relations outside the frame.

I agree with many of Kester’s observations regarding the use of continental philosophy in current art criticism, and certainly my article “What is Useful? The paradox of rights in Tania Bruguera’s ‘Useful Art’” is characterized by several of the sins outlined.3 However, it is abundantly clear that “What is Useful?,” rather than being guilty of an oversight or an inability to attend, was never intended as an engagement with the practice and performance of IMI. I concede that I leave Brown’s theory uncontested in the space on offer from Art & Education, but it is stated quite plainly that it is Immigrant Movement International’s communications material (in fact, two very deliberate documents, IMI’s “Bill of Rights” and “Manifesto,” which Kester dismisses as “statements posted on the IMI website”) that makes up my object of inquiry. I am not explicit about addressing IMI as an important facet of the larger discursive appearance of “social use value” as an art-institutional but also cultural-policy objective across the US and Europe, yet it seems Kester’s critique lies more in professional ring-fencing, the conservative mandate on attendance instituting a school of “diachronic” criticism dependent on globally mobile experts of an ambiguous “fieldwork,” rather than a disagreement rooted in an actual engagement with my text. I think a significant departure is needed from analysis of “dialogical” practice that sees it as immaterial, or even primarily located in the space of encounter—made up of “modulations of agency,” as Kester writes. These projects produce things with their own branding, their own adherence to language and visual communication, which are both “byproducts” of the work as well as outcomes carefully engineered by the artist and I would argue that they make up the work in equal measure to embodied experience. Particularly as Bruguera comes from a tradition of performance art, disregarding the composition of the project’s Manifesto or the politics of documentation seems historically shortsighted. It is critical to note here that I view both as valid points of entry—I don’t take issue with Kester’s call for engagement at the IMI headquarters, but rather his easy attribution of all encompassing power to the critic (the ability to “see” the shifts in power within the project as a specialized observer) and his uncritical importation of ethnographic terminology. Kester is no doubt aware of what has already been said here (in e-flux journal) and elsewhere concerning ethnography as far from the neutral work of an engaged and responsible reporter, and made up of its own devices—with politically contingent outcomes.4

In constructing a dichotomy between “fieldwork” and the October doctrine, the long history of challenges to ethnographic practice are set aside—a laxity that weakens the otherwise valid assessment of the easy reliance on theory in current art criticism. Kester’s article perhaps produces an important unanswered question: How to work with participant experience in criticism without reproducing well-known problems of representation currently being contested within the social sciences?

The text leaves more troubling questions unaddressed: Who can “see” shifts in power? Just as you cannot “see,” or for that matter witness, the workings (and embedded hierarchies) of a right, as Brown’s work so adeptly lays out, I would argue that attempting a diachronic analysis, as Kester calls for, must start with how the project articulates its own demands. While Kester pays cursory lip service to the idea that a methodology for this fieldwork must be worked out, given what we know about the centrality of methodological inquiry in critical ethnographic practice, the notion that a specific discussion of method can be deferred without even a footnote is highly suspect. In effect, the reader is left with a proposal for sauntering into Bruguera’s community center in Queens and taking notes on the “resistance and accommodation” within the project. Kester’s insights into how “reception itself is refashioned as a mode of production” are incisive, however they share a blindspot with recent theory concerning the “usership” of art in their inability to take hierarchies of access into account.5 Kester’s sweeping reference to the “participants” from which the critic must collect “actual experiences,” even “with a particular awareness of the parameters of agency and affect,” masks the inevitable differential access to participation, and therefore to the act of recording by the critic, that Brown’s work accounts for. In addition to capturing experiences, what are the conditions that shape the capacity, and therefore the critical reception, of participant response?

In the theoretical work I utilize, Brown mines the paradoxes of a historically specific disagreement between critical race theorists and legal theorists working on the critique of rights in the late 1980s.6 My use of Brown was an attempt to tie IMI to this debate, and in so doing to import an analysis that charts material conditions of intersectionality with regard to civil rights—I disagree that this is a general application of a bloated totality from the school of “Badiou or Deleuze or Rancière or Nancy or Agamben or Derrida,” as Kester derides. Rather than a “theoretical brand concept,” intersectional analysis is necessary here because the project is meant to be socially operational: the rights that it asks for, as well as how it is structured internally— where the record of participant experience would come into play—needs this theory, regardless of whether one agrees with how I’ve applied it. My use of Brown’s work in the context of IMI takes Bruguera’s campaign very seriously, applying a still highly contentious idea from recent history to the notion of civil rights for immigrants. In this vein, I therefore seriously object to Kester’s accusation that I dismiss Bruguera, reducing her “critical act to a kind of syllogism.” I explicitly discuss the politically productive aspect of the work as its creation of more space—and a very different kind of space—for public discussion around migration and the question of rights. I consider the international conversation around the project to be only strengthened by the incorporation of a critique of rights, even in the event of similar debates occurring within the project itself. While Kester accuses contemporary critics of using “theory simply to provide intellectual validation for relatively unremarkable concepts or ideas that are already widely accepted within our discursive field, and which add little to our understanding of a particular project or work,” I would argue that the critique of rights I draw on, particularly with regard to how access to rights is striated, is by no means commonly accepted or publicly discussed within “our” discursive field.7 Furthermore, my use of Brown’s work is meant less as a diagnosis and more a (formal) opening up of IMI to work already undertaken by this school of thought—an understanding of how rights operate in structuring political claims seems tantamount to grasping this project. Kester concludes that I miss how the project “engaged issues that extended well beyond the sphere of ‘rights,’ in ways that transcended the artist’s intentions and expectations.” Rather, I conclude similarly that the project may become a site for a radical reconfiguring of how rights are conceived, which would necessitate engagement far beyond the domain of the law or the purview of political representation in its most literal sense. While Kester may not have read my text in its entirety, it is testament to the generative application of the rights critique to IMI that he ultimately arrives at this analogous supposition. In relation, I discuss Brown’s call for rights to be considered beyond their sphere of practice, and in so doing, try to situate Brown as a “genuine interlocutor in the unfolding of a given work” as Kester put it, with IMI a fitting response to the unresolved question of what such a space might be.

Finally, a particularly tragic irony of Kester’s reprimand for not witnessing the action at the physical location of IMI is that he misses the central element of mobility with regard to the entire project. In fact, IMI has two stated audiences: the immigrants who use the project’s headquarters in Corona, Queens, and an international community of migrants—all of whom, by definition, cannot frequent the project in New York either.8 For this second audience, IMI is located in exactly the objects I attended to. While I agree that engagement with the localized context of the project over a long period of time will be an important aspect of its historicization, the notion that such a project can be encompassed by a single critical approach doesn’t adequately undertake the challenge this work presents to criticism.


Grant Kester, “The Device Laid Bare: On Some Limitations in Current Art Criticism,” e-flux journal 50 (Dec. 2013)


Anselm Frank, “Across the Rationalist Veil,” e-flux journal 8 (Sept. 2009)


Ellen Feiss, “What is Useful? The paradox of rights in Tania Bruguera’s ‘Useful Art,’” Art and Education


The history of challenges to the discipline, practice, and use of anthropology is far too extensive to make note of here. Anselm Frank references the work of Michael Taussig, Johannes Fabian, and Bruno Latour.


I am referring here to Stephen Wright’s work on usership, which was discussed in the context Bruguera’s Museum of Arte Útil at the Van Abbemuseum on March 15th. See


See Wendy Brown, “Suffering the Paradoxes of Rights,” Left Legalism/Left Critique, eds. Wendy Brown and Janet Halley (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 2002), 430.


As he references the work of Douglas Crimp in much of his criticism of October, it would seem reasonable to assume that Kester would be aware of how the move from the direct action of ACT UP to the current LGBT initiative for marriage rights is an instantiation of how rights discourse fundamentally structures political response—when present and when absent—and is still under-theorized, largely accepted as the end-goal of any social movement.

Anthropology & Ethnography
Socially-Engaged Art, Art Criticism
Return to Issue #54

Thanks to Larne Abse Gogarty and Marina Vishmidt.

E. C. Feiss is currently based in Maastricht as a researcher at the Jan van Eyck Academie, 2014–2015. Her work has appeared in Texte zur Kunst, Afterall, Frieze, Variant, and others.

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