Multiple Signatures of Subtraction – by Robert Luzar
A signature is commonly understood as the inscription of one’s name. A signature, more emphatically, inscribes who one authentically is. However, signatures do not always graphically preserve and express presence. This rupture, for instance, is what takes place under a certain multiple signature, so to speak, a multiple signature made by three artists – Janez Janša, Janez Janša and Janez Janša. In 2007, Emil Hrvatin, Davide Grassi, and Žiga Kariž changed their names to Janez Janša, the exact same name of the former, controversial prime minister of the Republic of Slovenia. Proposed by the artists group as a “readymade name,” the appropriation of the prime minister’s name has become the ongoing focus of the Janša artist group’s conceptual and activist subversion of hegemonic authority, a law that substantialises presence. Signatures, a series of nine triptychs composed of black acrylic on canvas, is an important work in this regard. In part, I will look closer at Signatures in relation to an antecedent action-based work, Signature Event Context – iterating an early essay by Jacques Derrida and playfully extending his deconstruction of the law as a presence of force and authority. My intention is not merely to explain these militant works, which try to subvert authority by over identifying the law in name; rather, I want to reconsider a radically negated presence posed by the multiple signature – Janša, Janša, Janša – and rethink the deconstruction of the law through notions of subtraction and refusal. Politically focused art, as some argue, is purposive. (1) Artists today focus less on being anarchically antithetical to creative limits and genres. Instead, they merge art with a more militant form of life. Since the 1960’s, Slovenian artists have unabashedly focused on sovereign power and state bureaucracy affecting everyday life: for example, parading as a National Socialist music ensemble (Laibach), or distributing passports for an artist run state (Irwin). These examples coincide with the artist-activist collective Neu Slowenische Kunst, which occurred during the 1980's and prior to Slovenia becoming an independent nation state. Distinct from such groups, Janša, Janša and Janša extend the activist ethos. By changing their personal names to parallel the Prime Minister’s name, Croatian theatre director Emil Hrvatin, Italian new media artist Davide Grassi, and Slovenian painter Žiga Kariž create “a hybrid situation of multiple references with particular consequences for life itself.” (2) As “Janez” is one of the most common names for men in Slovenia, the forename references everyday language and penetrates life socially. The surname, as we shall see, multiplies the name’s ontological reference with more fundamental consequences.
Janez Janša, Janez Janša, Janez Janša, Janez Janša, 2010. Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Art, Ljubljana. Reproductions: Tomo Jeseničnik. Courtesy of Aksioma – Institute for Contemporary Art, Ljubljana.
To unravel some of these consequences – a subtractive dialectics of sorts – we should ask one basic question: Who is Janez Janša? He was born in 1953 as Ivan Janša and, later, changed his forename to Janez. He was a representative of the law; the head of the Slovenian nation state. Janez Janša was Prime Minister of Slovenia twice – from 2004 to 2008 and, again, from 2012 to 2013. A leader of the Slovenian Democratic Party since 1993, his predominantly right-wing political career has provoked controversy. Prior to his first term as Prime Minister, Janša was a journalist for Mladina, a left-wing cultural magazine; and in 1988 he and three other Mladina journalists were arrested for writing dissident articles about the Yugoslav People’s Army. Six years after his imprisonment, his position in Slovenian politics took shape. But not without being accused of, for example, nationalist xenophobia, extremism, subordinating national media and racketeering. Most recently, in June 2013, Janša was imprisoned again, this time for taking part in an illegal commission operation with the Finnish firm, Patria. Although the unjustly actions of Prime Minister Janša may seem to prompt their name change, the Janša artists have publicly stated that their reason for doing so is personal. Being silently aloof paradoxically expresses a certain refusal, a break from the modernist intervention into “the social political tissue.” (3) Their political proposition though holds: to multiply ‘Janez Janša’ they ask that everyone – at least in Slovenia – also change and be in common under this name. The demand to over identify the law in name expresses a “subversive affirmation,” as writer Rok Vevar states, “an artistic/political tactic that allows artists/activists to take part in certain social, political, or economic discourses and to affirm, appropriate, or consume them while simultaneously undermining them.” (4) By making ‘Janez Janša’ a readymade name the artistic gesture aims at extending the subversive affirmation. A nod to conceptual art pioneer Marcel Duchamp, “readymade” denotes that any trivial object can be called and made – by name – into art. One of Duchamp’s most infamous works, Fountain (1917), not only uses a signature to turn a urinal into an artwork but also indicates the work as a name – R. Mutt. In contradistinction to Duchamp’s aversion for engaging politics, (5) the Janša artists transpose the object to the name itself and combat authority directly. Choosing to use the name as the art medium strikes directly at the performative gesture of this creative act, that is of calling and, without verification, authorising the work into being art. (6) Multiplying and ontologically emptying the name are major consequences expressed by the Signatures series. For their exhibition in 2010 at Aksioma (the Institute of Contemporary Art, Ljubljana Koroška Gallery of Fine Arts), the Janša artists produced each of their signatures in nine triptychs. A complex intersubjective map of changed names, each artist had their new signatures as ‘Janez Janša’ inscribed in black acrylic on plain canvases – this part was actually painted by another artist, Victor Bernik. And using their original names, each Janša artist signed the lower, right portion of the canvas as well. Thus, here Janša references Grassi, Kariž, or Hrvatin; and Janša references Janša: this semiotic doubling also multiplies numerically. The twenty seven tableaus materially preserve these signatures. In other words, the actual inscriptions archive the name, preserved in medium (acrylic and ink) and contextualised within the art institution. Furthermore, the authenticity of the signature is demystified; the inscribed name is a representation, an image of itself. (7) Not to mention, the inscribed name becomes an arbitrary cipher suspended in an administrative shuffle of personal identifications. The emptying of the name’s presence as a multiple signature, as I am proposing here, needs to be considered through an earlier work. At the Transmediale exhibition in Berlin in 2008, Janša, Janša and Janša proposed a performative installation, entitled Signature Event Context. Although the performance was initially cancelled by guest curator Nataša Petrešen Bachelez, the artists later proceeded to video themselves and virtually broadcast this work for the web. In this virtually archived walk at night around The Holocaust Memorial, the artists continuously reiterated “Jaz sem Janez Janša” [I am Janša Janez Janša]. (8) To extend this performative gesture, the artists signed one thousand copies of the Transmediale catalogue, by hand and in front of a live audience. For the Janša artists these physical, enunciative, virtual and momentary inscriptions of the name aim to refer, transmit and communicate “non-presence.” To understand how presence can become non-substantial I turn to a more philosophical discussion of the foregoing inscriptive actions.
“All writing,” Jacques Derrida explains, “in order to be what it is, must be able to function in the radical absence of every empirically determined addressee in general. And this absence is not a continuous modification of presence; it is a break in presence…” (9) This ‘break’ is a “radical destruction” of presence. Presence is not to be conflated with a personal ‘self’, a continuously modified yet permanent substance that is vitally authorised, inwardly preserved and morally whole. Presence is ontologically void; it is a pre-cognitive category that, as I propose, subtracts identity of empirical content. Subtraction, a term unique to Alain Badiou’s terminology, determines “the void of being as such.” (10) That writing engages subtraction through radical destruction means that the signature expresses a force of negation, a violent break destroying any hidden referent or transcendent notion of self. The ontological negation exercised by such a force counters any archival operation; multiplying the signature – as the Janša artists do – displaces any proper context of the name that, otherwise, authorises a natural, life-preserving and founding law as a vital force. By mentioning the law – undoubtedly an emphatic term, as is presence – I am extending the Derridean deconstruction of authority. In his later works, Derrida tries to tackle how the law, as presence, is a “mystical foundation of authority.” On the one hand, the law is a positive authority. The Prime Minister, in conjunction with a parliamentary system, has the legal power to make laws that impact civil conduct. On the other hand, the law is natural, a force that spontaneously “insures the permanence and enforceability of law.” (11) State authority reflexively circulates, as the great political philosopher Thomas Hobbes says, a “sovereign power” that carries “natural force.” (12) The law is an “artificial man,” binding every individual into a living socio-economic corpus. This body is analogically composed of “veins receiving blood from the several parts of the body, carry[ing] it to the heart; where being made vital, the heart by the arteries sends it out again, to enliven, and enable for motion all the members of the same.” (13) In this way, the law is ‘natural’. It constitutes subjects in one (artificial) body, the res publica that prevails as “the name of life,” as Derrida says. “It is life beyond life, life against life, but always in life and for life.” (14) For Derrida, a signature is a primary example of life circulating in force, founding and preserving itself in an “inaccessible transcendence of the law.” (15) By appropriating the name of the law, such as Janez Janša, and multiplying its name, presence is ontologically interrupted. The law becomes accessible as a condition of impossibility – rather than a natural force of life that transcends and substantialises itself. Deconstruction equivocally negates the law of its ontological force. At best, writing suspends the law as a transcendent limit; nevertheless, transcendence remains a mystical force of suspension. The law vacillates metaphysically; life magnifies in affect by subversions of its force. It is no surprise that the Janša artists take such pains – engaging, for instance, live performance and virtual technologies such as video and internet transmissions – to subvert and radically destroy the name of its law-like force. Works such as Signatures suspend the law, (Prime Minister) Janša becoming another common name. However, the rather adventurous traversal of immaterial mediums affirm the law as a virtual precondition, a metaphysical force that is always already life-beyond-life. Subtraction is one way in which the radical destruction of the law can negate force of its natural and positive form of life. Though it engages a complex epistemology, the Badiouian concept structures presence as a notion of pure knowledge. That being as such is purely void means that presence is not only non-substantive but, moreover, unnameable. The unnameable is “the doubling of the unique;” (16) in other words, being as presence is logically subtracted of any empirical mode – experiential, material, or virtually immaterial force – while remaining a generic multiple. Presence is radically absent, a name that is without proper referent and, hence, generic. This generic multiplicity then is the void that doubles the site in which the name (law, authority, force) takes place. How then do the Janša signatures exercise subtraction? Written in ink or cursively inscribed in acrylic, the multiple signature renders its implied self-authorising force powerless. ’Janez Janša' iterates a multiplicity that voids authority. The law becomes unnameable. This paradoxically expresses a certain refusal of force. An anarchic action rather than positive gesture, ‘refusal’ is a more pervasive form of inscription that “excludes everything immediate.” (17) As Maurice Blanchot strikingly claims, writing exercises refusal by excluding “all direct relation, all mystical fusion, and all sensible contact.” Presence “remains radically absent,” a “non-presence.” But within this exclusionary refusal, force – and this detail is key to an act of subtraction – is terminally altered. “Power as a force” is altered by engaging death – rather than a permanent self-preserving life – as a condition of “non-possibility.” Force then is an alteration of life into death. That is, force dissipates in affect, discontinues modification and looses vital substantiation. There is no virtual and vital presence that vacillates and positively maintains the law. Refusal opens up action to a state that lets negation take place. The putative transcendence of law, life beyond life – to which activist gestures aim to subversively affirm yet, in effect, suspend and perpetuate – is subtracted. What I have tried to rethink and alter throughout this article is not only the notion of law as force but a mystical presence that implicates subversive gestures. The works by the three Janša artists, especially Signatures, pose a refusal to the authority of the law. In its multiple and material form the signature of each artist radically negates presence. The name indicates non-presence in so far as the signed name appears as an empty figure. Indeed, each of these artists identifies himself under this name personally; nevertheless, ‘Janez Janša' is depersonalised, emptied of authoritative force. The activist gesture, of affirmatively subverting the law, struggles to nullify this force. Suspending the law implicates the militant action into the perpetuation of a metaphysical order of the law. ‘Force’ becomes more enigmatic through militant resistance. I am not suggesting, conversely, that artists remain completely passive to exercising any form of politics. Quite the contrary. Refusal is a radical action. It opens the subversive gesture toward affirmatively engaging “a force of creative negation.” (18) Refusal lets a creative action take place in which “negation negates nothing.” (19) The Janša signatures pose this multiple and subtractive act of refusal, this non-dialectical negation of negation, into a larger question, a question that paradoxically ends yet opens at the point where the name is inscribed.
Robert Luzar is an artist, writer and researcher currently based in Toronto, Canada. He explores crossovers of live-art and drawing-based practices with notions of multiplicity, materiality and ephemerality. He writes on art and critical theory and exhibits his works globally. He has exhibited in spaces such as the Whitechapel Gallery (England), Talbot Rice Gallery (Scotland), Orillia Museum of Art and History (Canada) Torrance Art Museum (USA), KCCC (Lithuania), and Künstlerhaus Dortmund (Germany); and has published in journals such as Desearch and Artfractures. (www.robertluzar.com)
( 1 )
See Boris Groys, “On Art Activism,” E-flux Journal 56 (2014): 1-14, accessed June 18, 2014, http://www.e-flux.com/journal/on-art-activism/
( 2 )
See Miško Šuvakovič, “A Crisis of Inscription/Signature: The Power of Personal Names” in Podpis = Signature / Janez Janša, Janez Janša, Janez Janša, translated by I. Sentevska (a publication for the exhibition Janez Janša, Janez Janša, Janez Janša, SIGNATURE, Aksioma – Institute of Contemporary Art, Ljubljana, Koroška Gallery of Fine Arts), 58.
( 3 )
See Jela Krečič, “Three New Janez Janšas,” translated by Denis Debevec, Signature Event Context, accessed August 1, 2014, http://www.aksioma.org/sec/krecic.html
( 4 )
Rok Vevar, “The More of Us There Are, The Faster We’ll Reach Our Goal!” translated by Denis Debevec, Signature Event Context, accessed August 1, 2014, http://www.aksioma.org/sec/vevar.html
( 5 )
Duchamp clearly states that, for him, politics is “a stupid activity, which leads to nothing.” See ‘I Live the Life of A Waiter’ in Cabanne, P. (1987) Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, translated by R. Padgett. London, England: Da Capo Press.
( 6 )
Performativity and speech acts are too complex for me to discuss here; however, I will look further at a more immaterial quality of the name.
( 7 )
See Petja Grafenauer, “The Poetics and Politics of The Signature” in Podpis = Signature / Janez Janša, Janez Janša, Janez Janša, translated by I. Sentevska (a publication for the exhibition Janez Janša, Janez Janša, Janez Janša, SIGNATURE, Aksioma – Institute of Contemporary Art, Ljubljana, Koroška Gallery of Fine Arts), 17.
( 8 )
A sample of this reiteration, and more of the Janša arti project, can be viewed online: http://vimeo.com/39754263 .
( 9 )
Jacques Derrida, “Signature Event Context,” in Margins of Philosophy, translated by Alan Bass (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), 315-6.
( 10 )
Alain Badiou, “On Subtraction,” in Theoretical Writings, Edited and translated by Ray Brassier and Alberto Toscano (New York: Continuum, 2004), 103.
( 11 )
Jacques Derrida, “Force of Law, The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority’,” in Acts of Religion, translated by Marie Quaintance and edited by Gil Anidjar (New York: Routledge, 2002), 264.
( 12 )
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, edited by G. C. A. Gaskin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 114.
( 13 )
Hobbes, Leviathan, 168.
( 14 )
Derrida, “Force of Law,” 289.
( 15 )
Derrida, “Force of Law,” 270.
( 16 )
Badiou, “On Subtraction,” 108.
( 17 )
Maurice Blanchot, “The Great Refusal,” in The Infinite Conversation, translated by Susan Hanson (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2011), 33-48.
( 18 )
Maurice Blanchot, “Literature and the Right to Death,” in The Work of Fire, translated by C. Mandell. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 307.
( 19 )
Blanchot, “Literature and the Right to Death,” 315.