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The charismatic self

I will take the liberty to welcome you to this session in a very improvised setup: amidst of material of an ongoing artistic research project. I am in big suspense of all the unforeseeable links, associations, comments and questions that may emerge out of this setup.

And i am particular fond of the oppositional mode: confronting materials in a position facing each others and in doing so, producing new understanding. We are surrounded by rushes: a selection of more or less un-edited clippings of video and sound recordings

It is an experiment, in a series of explorations that are concerned with the work of the artist. In this sense it is a very literal interpretation of the term "artistic research" -- not in an adverbial but in an adjectival sense: research on art or an investigation into the new role that the work of artists may play in society, in an industrial or postindustrial production, creating value from the outcomes of material or immaterial labor.

How shall we start?


Together with nine students from Trondheim I travelled to Calcutta. The Indian artist Praneet Soi had organised an extraordinary program for us: visiting another workshop or factory each day.

We got the chance to see the production in dozens of small scale workshops, where craftsmen were working with almost nothing but their hands. Baking sweets, soldering metal sheets for handmade fire distinguishers, printing leaflets, silkscreen printing, weaving baskets and manufacturing jewellery, hammering pans and pots and so on and so forth. The monotonous work takes place in public: along the streets and in the markets of the old town.

Then it escalated. We went out of town into poorer and poorer neighbourhoods and visited an iron foundry. The work turned artistic like in a circus. In deed it is artistry how the workers carry the cans filled with liquid iron, 1500 degree celsius hot, over 20 or 30 meters to the moulds, barefooted and dressed only in underwear because of the heat.

We were invited to a jute factory where thousands of workers manufacture gunnysacks from raw material in three shifts around the clock. The workers appeared as a prolongation of the sack sewing machines. Their movements were dictated by the rhythm of a machinery which looked like it operated unaltered since colonial times.

We travelled a hundred kilometers north and observed the production in a large scale steel factory that apparently was taken down somewhere in West Europe and got resurrected in the north of Calcutta. The steel mill is fairly automatised. The workers are there to observe the huge machinery, and interact with it at critical moments.


In 1931 the Philips Eindhoven corporation commissioned the first Dutch sound film: Philips Radio, or, as it was also known, Industrial Symphony. It was a documentary shot by Joris Ivens at the peak of the economic depression, which coincided with radio technology’s advent on the mass market.

The 36-minute film was supposed to show the modern production process of manufacturing radio receivers at the factories and offices in Eindhoven. What we see is a celebration of images that aims to re-compose the industrial division of labour in the form of an artwork.

Most prominently, the film features the very notion of sound by deconstructing the industrial mass production of radio receivers as transmitters of sound. Ivens and his collaborator Helen van Dongen were using a sampling technique combining the noises of work, music, radio broadcasts, and pure abstraction.

The fascination of the abstract beauty of the machine processes on the one hand, and the concrete portrayal of the hard work carried out by the workers on the other, produced a cinematic piece, the ambiguity of wich irritated both the commissioners and most critics alike, not to mention the filmmaker himself.

The corporation reportedly refused to show the film in its original version, while the Christian newspaper Het Volk considered it a “document of inhumanity”. Apparently, Ivens did not expose the assembly line as the worker’s subjugation under the rule of the machine in the same way as Chaplin did in the famous opening sequence of Modern Times, or as René Clair did in a strikingly similar scene of his À nous la liberté!.

Rather than a caricature, Ivens tried to make a “cinematic expression of a twentieth century production line manufacturer.” Its non-complicity with the clichés of both the advertising of the success of the company as well as mere anti-technological propaganda may constitute a rather unexpected value of the film today.

It is the precise depiction of a division of labour that is at stake: the specialization of labour that was necessary in order to sell, by the time the film was made, more than a hundred million vacuum tubes.

Ivens shows the entire chain from advanced glassblowing techniques to the assembly of complete radios, from the research laboratories to the typing pools with hundreds of secretaries and the packaging of complete radio sets.

The area of the factory of the Philips corporation in the center of Eindhoven was called: forbidden city. 90 years after the company has started there with the mass production of light bulbs, today the 29-acres wide area is supposed to be transformed into a "the creative city" -- as the currently largest urban planning project of the Netherlands.

The idea is that great numbers of young creatives, architects, designers, film and media producers, as well as all sorts of start-up companies are moving into the place where once the industrial mass production of radio and TV receivers began.


What we experience today as “creative industries” is a reintegration of all sorts of practices that have not been considered productive so far. At least they have been situated outside of the production of value and currently the are subsumed under the regime of a new social division of labour.

What would it be like if instead of reasoning about the essence of immaterial production or the very character of creative industries one investigated contemporary forms of the division of labour in post-industrial production processes?

1. At first sight, an increased level of control appears to be the ultimate purpose of the technical division of labour today.

2. Whereas segmentation of the work process in industrial production has led to the evacuation of meaning, in so-called immaterial production it is the other way around: meaning needs to be re-sampled through the re-collection of isolated practices under capitalist command or, in more friendly terms: through co-operation. It is the proprietary code itself that does not only regulate access to the means of production and the reproduction of the productive forces, but also establishes itself as a goal in its own right.

The decomposition of the factory and the break-up of its theatrical unities of location, time, and story line have produced a new social division of labour that reflects that decomposition. The technical division of labour is sourced out to individual mini-entrepreneurial units with various occupations that are split up and scattered across time and space.

The molar segmentations of the traditional division of labour that was based on reducing complexity, decreasing the knowledge that is needed for the steps of production and expropriating it, is replaced by a rather molecular segmentation. The linear dramaturgy of the assembly line has turned into a transversal organization of work without any ends or limits.


The starting point of the research is the immediate environment and the local context of the art academy in Trondheim as part of the Norwegian University for Science and Technology (NTNU) whose strategy "Knowledge for a better world" is based on the development of knowledge and the creation of value - economic, cultural and social.

The research project begins with interviews, film and photo shoots in the laboratories, science and engineering facilities and research centres of NTNU in Trondheim. By investigating the technological developments currently being carried out at NTNU the university is regarded as a factory: a site for producing knowledge.

The initial questions are: What does it mean to produce knowledge? What is the relationship between creative practices and scientific research, material and immaterial labour? How do the concepts of today's creative industries and industrial production correspond and complement one another?

We have started very recently with a series of video interviews with three graduate students from NTNU: Product designers who founded a start-up company in the creative industries cluster around the art academy KIT. The name of their company is "nice" and we have started to engage them in a reflection of what characterises their work as no longer producing a material product, but rather designing immaterial processes that are valorising different forms of knowledge which have not been considered valuable before: as a so called "co-design" in a collaborative fashion, across different disciplines, directly engaging the user, the client or the patient.

Their production in the creative sector of Trondheim is characterised by key features that so far have been reserved to mark the peculiarity of the privileged working methods of artists. Under the paradigm of creativity it operates across disciplines, it takes place in labs and clusters and it involves all sorts of imagination and speculation.

What seems to be at stake are new, hybrid divisions of labour, which actively involve the self of the user in the actual creation of code; that combine algorithmic and poetic work, disciplined and undisciplined activities, deterministic and precarious states, paid and unpaid labour.

Here, the artist appears as a role-model for a self-managed entrepreneurship that is supposed to constantly question the apparent division of labour and to reformulate a division between manual and intellectual labour that is still constitutive for the current mode of production.


Why does this matter to us? What does this mean for art and the role of the artist?

For one or even two decades there has been an exhaustive debate about the shift from an industrial to a postindustrial production. Creative industries have become the focus of cultural policies: It is considered the "Oil of the 21st century" and obviously of particular relevance in Norway. It seems to be of major concern in a city like Trondheim and its heritage from industrial production aligned at the University for Science and Technology. It seems to be crucial on an European level: The cultural policies of the EU legitimise the funding of public art by the increasing impact of creative industries on a general economy.

Ultimately, the research project will test the following hypothesis: The mythology of networked automatisation, which we can no longer escape, has estranged creativity from the process of creation.

In order to generate value, the image becomes valuable in an alienated context—one other than its own. This is what, in my research on "Imaginary Property", I suggest to understand as "relational value". A form of value that is neither useful nor exchangeable, but consists of pure relationality on the level of meta-data, i.e. data that are extracted from the image.

I am tempted to push this proposal a bit further: it is not only the image, but the work of the artist itself, that becomes valuable in an estranged, alienated context, an environment that is different to the original context of its creation and dissemination.

In economics this effect is nowadays called a "spillover": externalities of economic activity or processes that affect those who are not directly involved. Cultural policy makers try to explain by it, why the results of funding for the arts or culture are not limited to the rather negligible, immediate effects if quantifiable at all. In creative industries there is more at stake than the generation and exploitation of intellectual (or better: imaginary) property.

Through active participation, in a so called "Culture 3.0", the outcome of an artistic activity may have mysterious effects outside of the cultural realm: on the job market as well as on a general economy.

This means that the work of the artist is no longer situated outside of economy. On the contrary: No matter how we may find it, whether we like it or not, artists have become not only role-models for a precarious, post-bohemian lifestyle in a state of permanent (self-)criticality.


Our research sets out to evaluate of a number of specific techniques of the self that have been relevant in the history of art in the 20th century as a continuous engagement with the provocations, ruptures and threats of mechanisation and industrialisation: the genius, the flâneur and the dilettante; narcissistic and cynical models of a degenerating self; the artist as producer and the auteur concept; do-it-yourself and relational aesthetics.

In a certain sense and not only recently, art has been obsessed with the transitions of the problem of the self: from the celebration of the unconscious self to the portrait of a politically correct self that is critical of any process of institutionalisation; from the ecstatic or expressive self to the abstractions of a fugitive self that escapes meaning by strategies of an over-affirmation of form; from a visionary self that gained its confidence from understanding itself as avant-garde to the paranoia of a self that is obsessed with encyclopaedic, all-encompassing systems of controlling knowledge and information.

Hybrid divisions of labour require a different conception of the self. It is not the mirror image of a subject that owns itself and through that acquires the capacity of ownership as such. It is not the creative self that mirrors its imaginative power in the product of its labour. It is a charismatic notion of the self that is characterised by a permanent sense of crisis and the resulting need to perform itself in real time.

Over the past decades we have been experiencing how the paradigm of discipline, how the very idea of inclusion and exclusion, how liberalism and politics as such have undergone dramatic shifts: rather than placement the process concerns localisation, rather than identification, politics seem to require the performance of a self in real-time.

Rather than a self that needs to be captured and arrested is about a self that needs to be performed precisely in the sense of constantly making present what is otherwise absent? And isn't this exactly the dilemma of creativity which seems to exist only in its absence?


Charisma is becoming the currency of power in a society of control. Or, as Alain Badiou remarked: If the subjectivation point is the declaration of an event, every subjectivity is initiated as a charisma, as a gift that falls from heaven. Politics in the mode of charismatics require constant self-monitoring, self-evaluation and self-organization. It is supposed to be capitalized in the form of permanent self-congratulation.

This refers to a different notion of charisma, one that needs to be separated from its religious meaning, Weber’s sociological conception of charismatic authority and the common colloquial use of the term as a synonym for gifted leadership.

Originally, charisma is the spirit that creates community. It is of immaterial character, or moreover: the crystallisation of immateriality. But can we also use this term in order to get a hold of new, immaterial forms of labor? Furthermore, can it be conceptualised as a mode that performs a self or the precariousness and ephemerality of selfness as such amidst of an industry that considers itself creative? Rather than a gift that fabricates community it would be a task that reformulates subjectivity.

For Hannah Arendt charisma was not just a gift that one has not earned, but relates to the very capacity to have an opinion "under any and all circumstances". Indeed, networked power is based on virtues like the imperative of participation in a kind of interactive populism. Having an opinion "under any and all circumstances" is supposed to compensate for the obvious discomfort with the coercive surveillance that is outsourced to the self in a society of control.

Such a charismatic self acts as a clearinghouse for heterogeneous streams of data which are extracted from the myriads of circulating images and which need to be differentiated by ad-hoc judgments. The charismatic self is constituted by the very capacity to have a distinct opinion under any circumstances within a networked environment where the hierarchical production of meaning is messed up and relational value is generated without a plan or purpose. Its ambition is to overcome the perplexity that results from the chaos of an inflation of data inherited from past events.

Again: What could that mean for the understanding of contemporary art and the role of the artists in today's society?


I am currently envisioning this research project taking place on several different layers:

1. Examining the actual relationship between art and new technologies in the specific local setting of the art academy KIT within the setting of the Norwegian University for Technology and Science and creative industries sector in Trondheim.

2. Comparing and setting out the results in a wider perspective and within different international, interdisciplinary contexts. Identifying corresponding aesthetics and new narrative strategies.

3. Putting the findings into practice and presenting the outcome of the research project alongside a series of commissioned essay films that will be produced and exhibited as video installations in collaboration with a number of internationally renowned artists and art institutions.

The project is a research trip into a new and "charismatic" notion of the self of the artist who might be condemned to a terrible task: It has to revaluate, remix and reconnect the image with a new concept of a self, which does not necessarily have to be the original creator. Rather than being an unearned gift, the charismatic self may appear as the just or unjust deserts of new forms of ownership that are currently emerging out of the networked character of production.

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