Boris Groys: The Logic of Collecting

S. S.: In your reviews and critical essays, the mechanisms of art collection and their respective institutions, such as the museum and the archive, play a central role. In this conversation, I would like to focus on these concepts, but also on the related issues of memory and forgetting. I want to begin with the activity of collecting and its relationship with the museum. How do you see this relationship? Does the collection shape the museum, or is it on the contrary the museum that determines the collection?

B. G.: The art museum established itself as a collection of originals. It was conceived as a collection of objects that were not simply examples of something, but absolutely unique. For example, the Mona Lisa is in the museum not because it may serve as an example of a woman’s portrait. The portrait of Mona Lisa represents only itself. In this sense the art museum differs sharply from other collections. A museum of natural history, for example, is not a collection of unique originals but a collection of examples. If a dinosaur is exhibited in such a museum, this dinosaur is merely an example of an entire species. The same is true for the library where one book is collected as an example of a much larger number of printed copies of the same volume. In the 20th century, there is a rupture in the understanding of the art museum, a rupture connected with Duchamp’s ready-made and similar operations that employed examples from a series as unique objects. This rupture could arise only because initially the art museum was conceived as a collection of unique originals.

S. S.: In the volume The Invention of Russia you write that the socialist museum is distinguished from the traditional humanist one by being no longer guided by the idea of historical representation. and by the fact that in the socialist museum the homogeneity of that which is historically different is artificially established. Does not such an artificial homogenization apply to other types of museum as well, especially to the historical museum where language and exhibition techniques establish homogeneity among objects that basically have nothing to do with each other? Or is this homogenization for you something that applies only to the art museum?

B. G.: Naturally, every museum can be accused of a partial representation of history. In the American context you often speak about “inclusion vs. exclusion”–something comes in, while something else remains outside. This is certainly true for every collection. What is important for me, however, is that the Western museum, Hegelian or post-Hegelian, functions on the premise that this museum must be representative. That means that when it is noticed that such a representative museum collection has excluded something, this recognition becomes the point of departure for a critique of that collection. As a result the excluded element is incorporated into the museum, one feels compelled to justify its exclusion. In this way, the initial exclusion is rectified. It is interesting that in earlier times this was not the case. Before the emergence of the historical museum in the 19th century, the main characteristic of a collection was that it represented a certain taste or attitude. An aristocratic art collection could therefore be criticized for the fact that it did not consistently represent a certain taste, that it included something that did not belong in the collection, but not for excluding something.

In other words, a certain rupture occurred in the expectations that we bring to the museum. In the context of the Soviet Union, the expectation directed at the museum was to show what was relevant from the point of view of ideology. If it could be proven that for example some bourgeois object was contained in the Soviet museum, something that did not correspond with this ideal, then it had to be removed. Unlike the West, in the Soviet Union, the realization that something had been excluded from the museum was not a reason for a critical attitude towards the collection, on the contrary. The real criticism was that there was too much in the museum, that the purity of a certain ideal was not being preserved. We could say that the official Soviet museum, compared to its Western counterpart, responded to a completely different set of social expectations. These expectations are more reminiscent of art collections before the emergence of the museum.

S. S.: To what extent is there a connection between certain formal properties of an artistic object and its inclusion into the collection? Does the art collector have to recognize that a certain object is formally innovative? It seems to me that the notion of “form” occupies a rather ambiguous place in your theory. Where does it connect with the gesture of innovation?

B. G.: It has often been noted that the dynamic of formal innovation is geared towards the exposure of the medium. An innovation is relevant for the museum wherever that innovation works to question the museum’s assumptions. This happens whenever we discover something outside of the museum that exceeds the criteria that have, up to the present moment, guided its collecting practice. It was the avantgarde–from Malevich’s Black Square to Duchamp’s “Fountain”–that started this process. The avantgarde innovation is a formal innovation that points towards that which is outside the museum, especially that which for one reason or another cannot be included in its collection. In the 20th century we find ourselves in a paradoxical situation in that the museum does not collect what, according to its own criteria, ought to be collected–that would be kitsch–but, on the contrary, that which according to these criteria ought not to be collected. This paradoxical situation is also referred to by the self-contradictory expression “Museum of Contemporary Art,” an expression that characterizes the contradictory operation according to which that museum functions, the rejection of what ought to be included, and, conversely, the inclusion of what ought to be excluded. This logic, a logic that assimilates precisely what contradicts established good taste, dictates the museum curator’s taste and subjective preference.

S. S.: The avantgarde’s attitude towards collecting reminds me of the Russian philosopher Fyodorov who writes of the necessity to establish a museum aimed at the resurrection of all beings that ever lived on the surface of the earth. Would you agree that such a museum comes very close to the project of the avantgarde?

B. G.: Definitely, yes. In all his writings Fyodorov wanted to turn the realm of God into a museum, he wanted to create a secular version of the divine memory. In doing this, Fyodorov asked precisely the question after the medium. His famous thesis that we should all be physically resurrected by modern technological means was concerned first and foremost with the materiality of that resurrection. For Fyodorov, the museum begins where we place the divine memory within the specific conditions under which it can become a material reality.

S. S.: I would like to focus for a moment on the problem of repetition. In your opinion, repetition represents, if I may say so, the only real taboo for the historical avantgarde. This means, I think, that for the avantgarde repetition properly speaking represents forgetting–the only possibility to engender forgetting, one might say, is to do it again. Secondly, it would appear as if repetition for the avantgarde is the only thing that is truly beyond the realm of representation. As the example of Malevich’s Black Square shows us, even unrepresentability can be represented, yet repetition, it would seem, cannot. Could this be one of the reasons why the taboo of repetition exists for the avantgarde?

B. G.: I agree with you. The taboo of repetition is a consequence of the demand for a universal memory. Repetition also opens up the possibility for the material destruction of the art of the past. When for example in a church for one reason or another copies were made of ancient icons, the older icons were subsequently destroyed and replaced by the new ones. Furthermore, such a replacement was not considered a loss, because the ancient icon was replaced with a copy that represented the same saint or biblical event and thus had the same theme, medium and perhaps even style as its predecessor. In a museum, there can be no such repetition. Here the injunction against repetition or copying safeguards, on the contrary, the preservation of all previous variants of the same object, i.e., it guarantees a universal memory. When something new arrives at the museum, the old is not subject to destruction. By the way, when I say “destruction” I mean just this, the physical destruction of these objects, not their possible “forgetting.” What is important is the fact that their material carrier remains intact and undestroyed. In contemporary art, it is less repetition than the play with reproduction that comes to the fore. A reproduction is not simply a repetition but a change of medium, an operation that can be directly thematized by the museum.

S. S.: In the museum the work of art demonstrates its deviation from tradition. At the same time the museum marks that place where–as soon as the boundary between museum and its outside has been crossed–this deviation is being neutralized. I am interested in the ambivalence of this transfer from the museum’s exterior to its interior. The innovative quality of the transgression evaporates as soon as it is completed. Innovation, then, is a highly ambivalent and dynamic process. It does not establish stability for itself anywhere, least of all in the museum.

B. G.: In On Innovation and The Logic of Collecting I react to the understanding of history as a narrative about what has happened. Today narrative history is often accused of being a fiction. History as narrative has become unconvincing. As Lyotard has shown, the historical narrative has disintegrated and become pluralized. For my part, I do not think that history is a narrative, whether it be factual or fictional. History occurs in a space between the archive and life, between the past that is being collected and reality, understood as everything that has not been collected. Yet this zone where history occurs does not simply disintegrate, it does not become fictionalized. On the contrary, it becomes more and more homogeneous because the archives–partly through the electronic media–gradually merge to form one large world archive, a formalized universal memory. What we call history is the question after everything that is in the world but has not yet been incorporated into this universal memory. The dynamic process of history is the search for what is new–“new” not in the sense of a narrative but in the sense that it has not yet been included in the archive. The inclusion into the archive immediately redraws the boundary between the archive and its exterior and demands the archivization of what remains outside of its limits. The past is not “memory” but the archive itself, something that is factually present in reality. The future, on the other hand, is the task to expand the archive. Finally, the present is that of which one knows that it has not yet been included in the archival collection. History follows a formal logic where the past present and future are not thought of psychologically, not historically in the classical sense of the word, not existentially, and not in a Hegelian way but in a purely formal way, from the point of view of archival inclusion and exclusion.

S. S.: Foucault noted that the border–rather than becoming neutralized or erased–constitutes itself precisely at the moment of its transgression.

B. G.: There are obviously parallels between my idea and Foucault’s, yet I differ from Foucault in my understanding of what structures the archive internally. For Foucault, the structural principle behind the archive is whatever at a given point in time determines the scientific description of reality. The material basis of the archive are the different media in which it manifests itself. When we look at the way in which archives are formed we realize that this does not happen according to the classical taxonomies Foucault described but according to the principles of the media. Within the archive reality figures as a semiotic carrier, not, as Foucault believed, as a referent. I am wary of an understanding of history as something that we remember because I don’t know what the medium of that memory could be. It is hard to believe that this medium should be the soul or the unconscious. These are media of which I cannot say what they look like and, as such, they are the remnants of an idealist era. Memory is whatever is present in a specific medium. The past, in other words, is given to us only in the museum collections, not in the psyche or the unconscious. These are the places where the signs are shown through their respective media.

S. S.: What you referred to as the “classical” element in Foucault is surely also the very idea of a system, the idea that the archive functions as a system. For Foucault, this archival system is situated somewhere between the signifier and the signified, between langue and parole, between tradition and innovation. It appears as if for Foucault the objects in a collection exist only to the extent that they are being collected. Everything that enters the archive exists because it is destined to be included in the archival collection. In other words, what is to be collected does not exist–cannot be thought–without the system that looks after it, archivizes it.

B. G.: Indeed, that is a definite parallel, yet I think that Foucault did not perhaps pursue this thought to the end. For Foucault the archive is a dynamic entity where a systematic ideological structure imposes itself upon a basically unsystemic, unstructured collection. Like Foucault I also think that the archive is structured internally. However, what structures it is not reality, referents, or the descriptive sciences, but only its respective medium. What Foucault and other post-structuralists overlooked was precisely the problem of the medium. When post-structuralist theory posits an infinite play of the signifier I begin to wonder what the medium might be in which such a play could possibly unfold. The problem is that all signs, in order to appear, need carriers–yet there can be no infinite semiotic carrier, no infinite medium. All the media in which we operate are finite. It seems to me that the greatest mistake of post-structuralist theory is to imagine a play of the signifier beyond the scope of the media that could give it support. The idea that signs “flow infinitely,” that “it goes on” does not find any media support. In this sense my theory of the archive is anti-post-structuralist.

S. S.: I am interested in the distinction between the collector and the object that is being collected, especially in relation to “subjectivity.” The collector, for you, is a subject without a fixed identity who continuously changes sides and does not–or at least not for any length of time–identify with what is being collected. Could we say that the collector is someone who can only be understood as a multitude of identities rather than a unified single one? This would mean that the collector is not without an identity, but if one wanted to describe him or her one would have to use metaphors denoting series or sequences of dynamically changing identities.

B. G.: I would go even further. The collector–especially the one who collects on behalf of the public–has neither one nor many identities. The collector has no plurality, he or she submits to the modernist logic of representation that is characterized by the fact that it does not have an identity. The collector acts upon a demand from modern society to represent everything that can possibly be represented. This mandate leaves the collector very little room for bringing his or her own identity into the process. If he does this, he or she no longer fulfills his obligation, a lapse that is noticed immediately. The worst one can say about a curator is that he or she abuses his or her mandate by collecting according to personal taste.

S. S.: What structures and defines the museum, in your estimate, is not the objects we find in it but the empty space that marks the difference between them, emptiness [Leere]. I would like to dwell for a moment on the concept of difference. Your reservations regarding post-structuralism notwithstanding, how would you evaluate the relevance of difference for your understanding of the collection? Your description of the museum reminds me of de Saussure’s theory of language where the difference between signifier and signified plays perhaps a similar role as the emptiness that governs the relationship between the objects inside a museum.

B. G.: Certainly, up to a point. I have less of a problem with de Saussure than, for example, with Derrida and post-structuralism in general. The transition from structuralism to post-structuralism is the transition from the finitude of difference to its infinity. The principle of deconstruction is that difference is defined not through identity but through difference. But, as I said before, I cannot agree with the idea of an infinite play of signifiers. Whenever we are dealing with a semiotic system we are not only dealing with a de Saussurean system of differences that govern this system and give the signs their meaning, but we are also dealing with the identical conditions that allow this semiotic system to manifest itself. In other words, we are also dealing with its status as a medium. It is not that there is identity within a system of signs. In this respect, de Saussure as well as post-structuralists are certainly right. There is no such thing as “the” sign. The point is, however, that for signs to function as a finite system that system has to somehow become apparent. We need certain conditions according to which the system can become manifest as a material reality, conditions that must remain identical to themselves. To give you an example, in order for painting to be able to unfold its system of differences it needs a self-identical material carrier, the canvas. Of course, we can go further and declare that the canvas itself is a sign. In this case, however, the exhibition space where the canvas is located assumes itself the function of medium. We can further say that every room, even the museum itself, is a sign. We can go on and on like this, but only as long as we are still able to define the medium, i.e., the material carrier that allows these signs to become visible. There is identity, then, not on the level of the sign itself but on the level of its material transmission. It is therefore not possible to maintain the dogma of an ontological priority of difference. That would lead to the impossibility of defining the material semiotic carrier, the material entity that allows the sign to become perceivable and, hence, to function as a sign.

S. S.: How would you define the role played by otherness in this process? For Heidegger–whom you quote in a recent essay–the other dynamically swings back and forth between opening and closure, between illumination and utter darkness. The other for Heidegger is not ontologically stable, it opens up while closing down, and vice versa. I wonder if Heidegger’s dynamic or rhythmic understanding of otherness and its contrary motions is not closer to your ideas regarding the dynamics of the museum than you have been willing to admit.

B. G.: I agree with Heidegger’s analysis, but I do not agree with the conclusions he draws from it. To my mind, the dynamics you have described, the rhythmic interchange of light and obscurity, can be understood as the relationship between medium and sign. If I try to clarify Being–the obscure medium–then this medium immediately becomes a sign. What I would criticize in Heidegger is the idea of a “dark rest” [dunkler Rest], that part of Being that always never lights up, remaining forever closed and obscure. The idea of the “dark rest” gave Derrida and others the possibility to think the infinite play of the signifier, a play that withdraws into infinity. I protest against this difference that rules over identity. For Heidegger, the work of art as a sign is Platonic, yet as a material sign it is essentially obscure. The point is, however, that Being does make these signs manifest, however briefly, before they become obscure again. Yet this momentary clearing does occur. This means that it is impermissible to posit something that is by definition invisible, dark, or unknowable. What I want to criticize is Heidegger’s assumption that Being most radically withdraws from cognition precisely at the point where it opens up most widely. I would agree that Being withdraws again after its opening–but not until the next moment in time. I would like to come to an understanding of the temporality of this movement that is even more radical than Heidegger’s. For Heidegger, this temporality occurs as if above a dark expanse of water–Being–that remains ultimately untouched by it. It seems to me that such an original difference or infinitude is not necessary in order to describe these processes.

S. S.: I wonder at which point in this process the other is being collected–it would appear as if the other cannot be collected as the other. As soon as it is included in the collection, it ceases to be “other.”

B. G.: Indeed, the other cannot be collected. That is to say, otherness is constantly being collected but when that happens it becomes a sign and reveals its medium. If Malevich, for example, declares the structure of the canvas a work of art his innovation consists in laying bare the medium. Once such an innovation is collected, we have an entirely new system of signs inside the museum. We could go further and say that now it is no longer the canvas that interests us but the museum space itself, or perhaps the reverse side of the canvas, and so forth. Through such innovations the system of signs inside the museum completely reorganizes itself–to speak with McLuhan, the medium becomes the message. For Heidegger, on the other hand, there has to be an original Ur-Medium that is all media at the same time (Being). For Heidegger, every medium can become a sign but there is always something that remains, an obscure and unknowable arche-medium. I disagree with him on this score. If we find a certain idea plausible we do not have to posit an origin in which that idea is grounded. If a certain medium remains obscure, why does this obscurity have to be grounded in some ur-obscurity? Why does a transcendental condition have to make this obscurity what it is?

S. S.: You have argued that contemporary Eastern European art has no legitimate place in the Western art museum because it was created in a context that was defined not by the (Western) logic of collecting but by ideology. I wonder, though, if formal innovation as the collection demands it, on the one hand, and political or ideological concerns, on the other, necessarily exclude each other.

B. G.: Contemporary art thematizes context to a much greater degree than the artistic object. This happens in particular through the medium of installation. Earlier, Eastern European artists used the technique of installation to practice a kind of cultural identity politics. Now there are artists from East Asia, Cuba, and other countries who work extensively with the medium of installation and who enjoy a great deal of success, especially in the United States. Instead of letting themselves be included into existing collections, these artists create alternative collections–installations that fill the entire museum or exhibition space. The medium of these installations is basically the comparison between different types of art collections, the existing traditional ones, on the one hand, and the new imaginary ones, on the other. Such a comparison is itself a collection, a collection that documents the exhibition of collections. While the comparison/installation–the medium–does not function as art, the traditional collection it documents become more and more aestheticized and semioticized.

S. S.: One of the differences between Western and Eastern European art would seem to be the different use that is or was made of it, especially in a political sense. This difference also seems to be reflected in the medium of installation.

B. G.: In installations the use of art itself becomes an object of exhibition. An installation shows how certain objects are used. This can certainly go in the political or ideological direction you have indicated. However, recently, especially in Germany, there have also been attempts to suggest the actual use of objects within a given installation. For example, a kitchen is installed in a museum in which you can actually prepare food; there are apartments in which you can really live; or rooms where you can listen to real music. In these cases, what is being exhibited is the ideological and cultural use itself, but also, increasingly, simple everyday use. I would say that the exhibition of the traditional collection and the exhibition of the use of art are probably the main tendencies in contemporary installation art.

Cologne, 8 October 1998

Sven Spieker
Sven Spieker is a founding editor of ARTMargins. He specializes in European modernism, with an emphasis on the Eastern European avant-gardes, postwar and contemporary literature and art, especially in Eastern and Central Europe. Spieker's book publications include The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy (2008; Korean translation, 2013); Destruction (ed., 2017); Art as Demonstration: A Revolutionary Recasting of Knowledge (forthcoming, MIT Press). He teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara (USA) and lives in Los Angeles and Berlin.