None of the Above: From Hybridity to Hyphenation. The Artist as Model Subject, and the Biennial Model as Apparatus of Subjectivity

Simon Sheikh

It is significant that the productive capacities of this Third Space have a colonial or postcolonial provenance. For a willingness to descend into that alien territory—where I will lead you—may reveal that the theoretical recognition of the split-space of enunciation may open the way to conceptualizing an international culture, based not on the exoticism of multiculturalism or the diversity of cultures, but on the inscription and articulation of culture’s hybridity. To that end we should remember that it is the ‘inter’—the cutting edge of translation and negation, the in-between space—that carries the meaning of culture.1
Homi K. Bhabha

States are certain loci of power, but the state is not all there is of power. The state is not always the nation-state. We have, for instance, non-national states, and we have security states that actively contest the national basis of the state. So, already the term state can be dissociated from the term ‘nation’ and the two can be cobbled together through a hyphen, but what work does the hyphen do? Does the hyphen finesse the relation that needs to be done? Does it mark a certain soldiering that has taken place historically? Does it suggest a fallibility at the heart of the relation?2
Judith Butler

The human who has become a hyphen and who thereby exposes the in-between, is without why.3
Alexander Garcia Düttmann

If contemporary art is characterized, even unified, by any single tendency, it is its internationalization, or what could even be called biennialization. Biennialization is, as I have argued elsewhere, a process of transformation of how art is presented and viewed, as recurrent and punctual through the biennial form itself, but also as internationally dispersed, through the biennial form and its many locations, which by now cover most of the globe.4 Biennialization is the transformation of how art is produced, circulated and consumed, and it implies a radical re-inscription of the artist-subject as a model of global citizenship and (upward) mobility. It does so through the establishment of two figures: that of the international artist, of course, but also that of the international curator. If there is, then, an international style of art and its discourses, and therefore a truly international art and curation, then how are these artists and curators different from national, regional or local ones?

What does this biennialization, and its participation in the global flows of capital, manage to do with the art and artists circulated, presented and represented within it? In my view, there are three major elements to the transformatory process of biennialization: stylization, capitalization and, internationalization, which nonetheless cohere under a single principle of inscription, that of interpellation. Interpellation is, of course, a key term associated with Louis Althusser, who employed it in his essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” to describe how subjects are ideologically produced.5 In this text, Althusser famously distinguishes between two forms of state apparatuses: the repressive and the ideological, with the first category belonging to the public realm, with its mechanisms of power and control, such as the police force and the courts, and the second belonging to the private realm, with its discrete features such as communication and culture. It is not my place to reiterate the critique of cultural institutions as ideological, but rather to focus on the notion of interpellation, and how it, according to Althusser, “recruits” and “transforms” the subject it hails. The subject is thus addressed by power, but in a particular way that situates the individual, such as in the example of a police officer shouting “Hey, you!”—indeed both someone, and everyone, in the crowd is concerned, as subjects of this particular relation of power, in this particular state (in both senses of the word).

Indeed, if a biennial is such an ideological state apparatus, and its mode of address can be seen as one of interpellation, it is so of several individuals transformed into subjects and recruited for its cause; audiences, artists, organizers, and so on. All of them are biennialized, and thus brought into a specific relation not simply to power, but entangled within the three aforementioned elements: stylization, indicating that they are brought into a certain form; internationalization, meaning that they are more than national, that they are extra-national, so to say; and finally, capitalization, indicating their entanglement in the global flows of capital and thus their status as commodities. This also means that the subjects circulating in this system, be they subjects as in artists and curators, or as in subject matter or themes, are fundamentally exchangeable and inter-changeable. It is not the specific subject or specificity of a practice that is important, but rather that each one can be compared and thus replaced as objects in commodity exchange, and, moreover, that each one must constantly be interchanged to keep circulation and thus production in place and in play.

As an apparatus, the international biennial is crucial in the understanding of the subject production of the contemporary artist, and can be seen as the crystallization of how the subject is recognized and misrecognized in contemporary international art. It can also be seen as a matrix for subjects to be seen as international, generative, productive and subjective in a more general, political sense. Surely, the production of contemporary art cannot be viewed as unalienated labor, but rather as precarious, as one of the harbingers of precariousness as a condition of labor; indeed even self-precaritization as the willed production of subjectivity—stylish, international, and capitalist. Moreover, as an apparatus, the international biennial is indicative of how surplus is produced, or perhaps more precisely, imagined to be produced: through creativity, innovation, entertainment, tourism, speculation, monopoly rents, and so on. It is also an inscription of the subjects involved—concretely, artists, organizers and audiences, and abstractly, creators, administrators and consumers, into a relation of power and knowledge. Summarizing Foucault on the apparatus, Giorgio Agamben has described it as the “intersection” between these very relations, and, furthermore as “the network that is established between these elements,” which sounds as accurate a structural description of the international biennial as any.6 The biennial is thus a mise-en-scene of contemporary subjectivity, with all that this implies of recognition and misrecognition. It is indicative of a certain state of things, of the state that we are in, or, as it were, in-between.

If it is not the specificity of the subjects and practices that are primary, but rather their ability to circulate, then the artworld (as characterized by the biennial) is a circuit that transposes and transforms the subjects that are interpellated, where the subject is simultaneously the representative of a culture, an object of desirous projection of cultural value and futurity, and the extortion of surplus value from labor power. On the one hand, an international artist is so because s/he circulates, but with an identity, with a specificity, which is then compared and exchanged. S/he comes from a specific generation, a specific place and medium-based practice, like many others, and is included, initially, into the international circulation of art discourse and commodities as a representative. Perhaps s/he is even chosen by a national arts agency as their representative in an international show, in an international demonstration of identity and artistry. In the moment of circulation, of inclusion into the international, however, the same individual transcends his/her locality and specificity and becomes, precisely, inter-national. That is, above, and between nations in the sense of localism, provinciality, second tier-ism and so on.

On the other hand, the (now-) international artist is part of a global economic exchange of artists and goods, and the source of the extraction of surplus value, or, simply, income, that is not primarily his or her own. The circulation of monies in art is not only extracted from the sale and resale of the works themselves, but from their production (assistants, contractors and so on), and also from what can be seen as a minor type of financialization: money can be granted from nation states and agencies, as well as from international and private foundations, patrons and the like. In other words, the artist as representative can not only be seen in terms of his or her production and geopolitical background, but also in terms of his or her circulation within global capital and politics. If this is not a split identity, then it is certainly a highly complex and multifaceted one, which trades under the seemingly innocuous disguise of “international” artist. Perhaps this is also what we should understand as cultural exchange, and with that, the notion of the international artist as a so called hybrid identity (or “post-diasporiatic” identity, if you must). Hybridity is seen here as bringing together opposite forces, making them productive for capital, for post-modern subjectivity to become productive of symbolic and real capital, and to conjoining them even whilst attempting to resist.

Whereas hybridity as an identitarian construct has most often been celebrated in contemporary art discourse—reveling in the beauty of diversity, as well as in contemporary, urban entrepreneurialism, we are here reminded of its dark side, as was already present in Homi K. Bhabha’s theorization of the term in the early 1990s. For Bhabha, hybridity was not a solution to a problem that could merge different cultures, but rather an effect of colonial power and its interpellation of the (post-) colonial subject, which resulted in a split sense of the self, what he termed a “negative transparency”.7 It is thus not a celebratory concept, as opposed to the way in which it is often employed in biennial culture and major art events, but rather, it is an ambivalent state of being in-between powers of authority, the authenticity of authorship, and the (im)possibility of cultural translation. As noted in the epigraph, Bhabha highlights the “inter”, as in international and interstice (what he calls the in-between space), indicating a space between categories rather than a place that can unite, mix or blur categories and spaces. If this focus on the splitting rather the merging implied by hybridity can be recaptured, it is perhaps best done by abandoning the metaphor of the hybrid itself, since it, as we know, always runs the risk of becoming identitarian, as in the trading of subjects as new commodities. Instead, shall we replace it with the more obviously double-edged notion of the hyphen? Instead of international, we could begin to think of the inter-national, as in that which circulates in the forms described above.

Hyphenation is thus invoked here, not to produce a new entity or identity out of old categories, but as a term that remains both old and new, as well as in-between, since it brings together two words or concepts, but without merging them into one. Rather, it accentuates the split, and sometimes jarringly, uncomfortably, and counter-intuitively brings together two different designations. The hyphen can conjoin, obviously, but can also bring into form dialectics or antagonisms. It seems to presuppose fallibility, as remarked by Judith Butler in her questioning of the hyphen as employed in the term nation-state. As Butler underlines, the state is always cobbled with another word, such as in nation-state.8 Butler pertinently inquires into the nature of this hyphen, whether it finesses a relation, implies a continuation of some historical hegemonic order, or whether it reveals a fundamental fallibility of the relation between nation and state. She suggests that a state is not only the nation-state and its executive powers, but also an economic state, such as our current crisis, or even a mental state (which may or may not relate to the nation- or economic state one finds oneself in). It is important to note that the nation-state not only provides identity, but also denies it: this subject and subjectivity, and not that one. It does so through borders and legislation, through inclusion and exclusion (just like the artworld, in fact). There is, therefore, in the words of Butler “[…] a certain tension produced between modes of being or mental states, temporary or provisional constellations of mind […], and juridical and military complexes that govern how and where we may move, associate, work, and speak.”9 Hyphenation as identity thus implies an irresolvable undecidability on the part of the subject, since the terms, or states of being, that are being hyphenated are unclear and in flux, and since, more importantly, that the very decision of hyphenation, of inclusion and exclusion, of identification or annihilation, happens elsewhere. It is imposed and enforced from the outside. It is not the result of a willful subject production of funky cultural hybridity, as is so often clamored by the cultural industry and the art system.

Moreover, this notion of hyphenation strongly implies interpellation: how the designations of any identity are provided from outside the subject. You are born as a citizen of this or that nation, or not—this is not a matter of choice, creativity or will, but an interpellation from state power, and indeed, from supra-national power, which decides your status and belonging. It is, of course, possible to be a member of a nation that does not exist, that is virtual and trans-national, or, poignantly, to be a member of a nation-state with which one does not identify, and which one wants to revise, revolutionize, destroy or simply leave. Hyphenation in terms of designated and designating subjects thus implies linguistics, jurisdictions, identities, and not creativity and multicultural hybridity. Indeed, as the chosen example of identification, representation and interpellation, the international biennial confirms that we are not witnessing a proliferation of multi-culture in terms of difference and contestation, but rather what we could name hybrid mono-culturalism. The subjects represented (and which represent) may vary, and indeed, must constantly change, while the apparatus itself remains the same, and, in turn, solidifies and fortifies. As it spreads geographically, the biennial form becomes not only more repetitive and similar, but also more hegemonic as an exhibition form and a method of circulation. When talking about artistic identities and representations of the artist in the globalized artworld, we can thus also talk about the hyphen: the inter-national, indicating that there is something added to the national, and that much else can be added too, with widespread consequences in terms of recognition and misrecognition, funding and defunding, circulation and exodus, artistic survival, and social death.

As mentioned, the figure of the contemporary artist can here be viewed as a sign of political subjectivity in general—not just in its optimistic forms, whether in terms of emancipation or commodification, depending on ideology, but also in terms of the indignity of interpellation, of being designated, even with the best of intentions. A wonderful illustration of this can be found in a drawing by Adrian Tomine, published in the New Yorker in 2007. Twelve frames are depicted, each one with an individual placed at a desk, filling out a piece of paper, presumably an administrative form of some sort. They seem to be of various ethnicities, but their facial expressions tell us nothing about how they are filling in the blanks, if it at all. Rather, the caption reads, beautifully, None of the Above. This indicates a mulitiplicity of choices, but that none of them apply, that the people in the image are hyphenated to such a degree that (self) designation in this form becomes impossible, if obviously not irrelevant. They are made to fill out the form, which is interpellated, and they may have to tick the box of that which does not fit: the unrepresentable. Might this, in the current global political situation, makes them truly democratic?

Should we reject hyphenation, and no longer let ourselves be identified as both this and that, and as inter-national? As attractive as this non-identitarian exodus might sound, it is hardly possible if interpellation already hails us from outside, and from the side of power. Rather, perhaps, we could try to embrace hyphenation, and do so through its additivity—adding so many possible and impossible designations that the whole endeavor becomes absurd and short-circuits the making of meaning. Hundreds of categories could be hyphenated. Or we could focus on the possible impossibility of joining the two words on each side of the hyphen. Instead of being inter-national, we would say: I am black-white, young-old, abled-disabled, man-woman, gay-straight, citizen-denizen, worker-employer, and the like. As hyphenated subjects, we are not only split subjects in a psychoanalytical sense, but also endlessly identified, named and categorized, expanded and compartmentalized. We are, in the words of Alexander Düttmann, presupposed, whether this presupposition in any way fits or not.10 There is a category for everyone within the law, even if that category places us outside the law, or in some uncertain in-between state of exception.

  • 1. Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), 38.
  • 2. Judith Butler and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Who Sings the Nation-State? (London: Seagull Books, 2007), 2–3.
  • 3. Alexander Garcia Düttmann, Between Cultures—Tensions in the Struggle for Recognition (London: Verso, 2000), 102.
  • 4. Although it has now been exported to most parts of the globe, the idea of the international biennale, as a competition of cultural superiority, as well as mobility, is a historically a Eurocentric concept, originating from the Venice Biennial. This western notion of an international, hegemonic artistic production is only the most general form of the biennale, and other, local forms have also been established. For further elaboration, see: Simon Sheikh. 2011. “What is Biennalization?,” Humboldt 156 (104).
  • 5. Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” Lenin and Philosophy (London: New Left Books, 1971), 127–188.
  • 6. Giorgio Agamben, What Is An Apparatus? (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), 3.
  • 7. Homi K. Bhabha, op.cit., 112.
  • 8. Judith Butler, op.cit.
  • 9. Judith Butler, op.cit., 4.
  • 10. Alexander Garcia Düttmann, op.cit.