Un Magazine 7.2

This monstrous neologism: on Lyotard’s Les Immatériaux

Tara McDowell




<em>Les Immatériaux</em> installation view, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1985

From our contemporary vantage point, is there anything—whether philosophical inquiry or historical phenomenon—more anachronistic than postmodernism? Postmodernism, many would argue, was an aberration, a wrong turn and then a bad style, a brief and outmoded line of flight supplanted by today’s clear victor: the contemporary.1 There are many postmodernisms, of course, from Frederic Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (first published in 1991) to the Gramscian, postcolonial British version by way of Dick Hebdige and Stuart Hall, from the Pictures generation and their October interlocutors to the neo-expressionism of Julian Schnabel and Peter Halley (see ‘Notes on Nostalgia’, from 1981). In the essay that follows, however, I turn to one of the originators of the term, Jean-François Lyotard, whose The Postmodern Condition was first published in French in 1979, nearly thirty-five years ago. Thirty-five years roughly covers a period now called the contemporary, even as the term struggles to contain all that falls within its temporal and now global bounds with each passing year.

In March 1985, at the height of Lyotard’s influence, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris opened Les Immatériaux, an exhibition organised by Lyotard and his co-curator Thierry Chaput, director of the Centre de Création Industrielle in Paris.2 The exhibition was a major event in French cultural life: it occupied the entire fifth floor of the museum, took two years to plan, and was the most expensive exhibition staged by the Pompidou up until that time.3 In addition to its presence in the galleries and its two catalogues, Les Immatériaux harnessed all the cultural resources of the Beaubourg to present a truly multidisciplinary event with a film program, music program, symposium, and so on. In the galleries, a single entrance branched into a maze of grey metal mesh screens that coalesced into a labyrinth navigated by visitors. The space was loosely divided into five possible paths or zones (subdivided into sixty sites), each path inspired by a word containing the Sanskrit root ‘mat’, to make by hand, measure, or build.4 The matériau path, for example, began with the Nu vain (Futile nude) and led to subsequent rooms titled Second Skin, Angel, Singing Body, Fragmented Body, ‘Infrathin’, Untraceable Surface, Indiscernables, Dematerialised Material, Neon Painting, Painting without Body, and Every Copy. Visitors were required to wear headphones that picked up different radio frequencies, such that each visual display was paired with an audio text, from Antonin Artaud to Paul Virilio, Kafka, advertising jingles, and noise.5

<em>Les Immatériaux</em> installation view, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1985

Les Immatériaux roughly translates to ‘the immaterials’ or ‘the non-materials’. These materials are new in that they newly challenge our relationship to the world, whether through the dehumanisation of technology or by the faltering of man’s mastery over nature. And so the exhibition was filled with computers (often malfunctioning) but also artificial skin, Kevlar, and works by artists including Giovanni Anselmo, Daniel Buren, and Dan Flavin. The experience was intended to be destabilising and full of slippages, a bewildering dramatisation of what profound uncertainty feels like. In this Lyotard was responding to Jean Baudrillard’s scathing diatribe ‘The Beaubourg Effect’ as much as he was to his new materials. Beaubourg, for Baudrillard, is a black hole, a ‘carcass of flux and signs, of networks and circuits’, a ‘monument to total disconnection, to hyperreality and to the implosion of culture’.6 Lyotard took such criticisms and deployed them, even amplified them, in space. The critics hardly warmed to such a seemingly incomprehensible atmosphere. Yet artists who saw the show felt quite differently. ‘What I think was really beautiful in Les Immatériaux’, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster recalls, ‘was the exploration of all the dimensions of light and sound by means of infrared and text. The viewer’s movement was taken fully into consideration’.7 For Philippe Parreno, ‘Les Immatériaux was an exhibition producing ideas through the display of objects in a space’.8

Lyotard conceptualised the exhibition in a prospectus first published in Art & Text, founded by Australian Paul Taylor, where he posed the project’s principal question: ‘do “immaterials” leave the relationship between human beings and material unaltered or not?—this relationship being understood as it has been fixed in the tradition of modernity, for example by the Cartesian program of becoming the master and possessor of nature’.9 For Lyotard, the Cartesian program was manifest in modern exhibitions through several conditions: first, the visitor is an eye, and sight is the dominant sense. This is the ideology of the white cube adopted by Alfred H. Barr, Jr. and still with us today—that sense of scanning discrete works on walls or circling works on pedestals. In the Cartesian space of the modern exhibition, the visitor becomes enlightened by her journey through the galleries. Space becomes understood, ordered, and rational. Lyotard sought to undo each of these tenets. Instead of an eye perceiving space organised in a linearly unfolding enfilade, he would throw up all manner of barriers to vision: darkness, grey metal screens, and the twists and turns of the labyrinth. Instead of privileging sight, he would activate the entire sensorium. Instead of enlightenment, he aimed at ‘intensifying the interrogation’ and ‘aggravating the sense of uncertainty’ posed by his principal question. Wearing headphones heightened a feeling of solitude, which for Lyotard led to an awareness that one’s own self ‘counts for very little’.10 Thus in place of the all-seeing ‘eye’, we have an evacuation of the plenitude of that mastery, and in our lack we fall into the black hole of Beaubourg.

Lyotard opted for the exhibition as a vehicle for philosophical thought because he believed books were outmoded means of communicating and absorbing messages. Though new to him, Lyotard grasped his adopted form quite well, for the exhibition in the modern era, beginning with the French salon (the first modern exhibitionary form) and continuing into late modernity or postmodernism, as Lyotard saw it, was a form marked by an encounter between humans and objects. If Les Immatériaux was meant to crystallise and amplify the nature of that encounter, and query how the new materials had fundamentally altered it, then the form itself as it had been traditionally conceived must be both preserved and transformed. Thus, staging the exhibition as a dialectic between its conventional form—one legible to the Beaubourg audience—and Lyotard’s dramaturgical intervention mirrored the relationship between modernism and postmodernism. In a Flash Art interview with Bernard Blistène, Lyotard provided a short and sweet definition of postmodernism that derives from modernism itself: postmodernism is ‘based fundamentally upon the perception of the existence of a Modern Era that dates from the time of the Enlightenment and that has now run its course’.11

Les Immatériaux, then, is as backward glancing as it is imagining of a technological future. And here is it haunted by one figure more than any other: Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp is the very first artist Lyotard mentions in the Flash Art interview. He’s a game-changer of modernism who dispenses with modernist notions of the creator and aura in favor of the artist as bricoleur and philosopher—two roles that Lyotard clearly occupied as curator of Les Immatériaux.12 Lyotard had written on Duchamp extensively and long before the show opened, including for the catalogue of the Pompidou’s inaugural exhibition in 1977, which was devoted to Duchamp. He included two of Duchamp’s works in Les Immatériaux, Torture-Morte (1959) and Belle haleine, Eau de voilette (1921), and named one of the exhibition’s sites ‘Infra-thin’, for the Duchampian neologism designating the nearly imperceptible temporal distance between encounters or objects, as in the difference between two mass-produced objects on the assembly line.13 After the exhibition opened, he wrote that its aim was ‘to make us look at what is “déjà vu”, as Duchamp did with the ready-mades, and to make us unlearn what is “familiar” to us’.14

Like Lyotard, Duchamp moonlighted as a curator, and while Lyotard never mentions Duchamp’s curatorial work, Duchamp’s two exhibitions on Surrealism are undeniable muses for Les Immatériaux. The later exhibition is the more well known: the First Papers of Surrealism was organised by André Breton and installed by Duchamp in New York in 1942. Duchamp strung a cobweb of twine throughout the room, effectively obstructing the visitor’s view of the works and path through the space. Children played ball in the room with permission from Mr. Duchamp. Not only does Duchamp’s interruption of the space align with Lyotard’s use of a latticework of metal screens, but both curators transformed empty white cubes into labyrinths—the labyrinth being both a key Surrealist obsession and figure of the unconscious, and a postmodern fragmentation of Cartesian space.15 And Lyotard surely would have warmed to the spectre of exile and tinge of alienation that marked Duchamp’s project—the exhibition was a benefit for the Coordinating Council of French Relief Societies, a wartime relief agency, and its title punned on application forms for United States citizenship.

In 1938, before many Surrealists left for New York, Duchamp organised the Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme at the private Galerie Beaux-Arts in Paris. Duchamp, acting as ‘Producer-Referee’ and with the aid of his ‘Lighting Master’ Man Ray, designed an environment that engaged the sensorium even more fully than Les Immatériaux would do. Aiming to create a grotto amidst the Surrealist paintings on view, he covered the floor of the main gallery with leaves and moss, placed beds with silk sheets in each corner, and hung 1200 coal sacks from the ceiling (filled with either incombustible material or empty, but showering coal dust on visitors). Roasting coffee beans filled the room with the aroma of coffee, and German military music was piped in while a phonograph played hysterical laughter. The effect was a total environment, one that aimed at the immersive, illogical space of the dream.

Like Les Immatériaux, the galleries were dark. Space in both exhibitions was interrupted: by those metal screens in Les Immatériaux, and by revolving doors of department stores, on which graphic works were displayed, in the Exposition Internationale du Surrealisme. Both curators forced viewers to use technology to experience their exhibitions: visitors to Les Immatériaux wore headphones, and Duchamp wanted the visitor’s approach to trigger electric lights that would illuminate the paintings in the dark room. When this wasn’t feasible Man Ray distributed flashlights that visitors used to see the paintings. Both Duchamp and Lyotard were keen to heighten a palpable sense of the unknown and unknowable in their exhibitions. ‘How’, Lyotard asked, ‘would an intensified questioning, a dramatised uncertainty, be achieved through an exhibitionary form? How would it unfold in space?’16 The immaterials had triggered a loss of our identity as human beings and led us to this state of uncertainty. In this state, and in this exhibition, we would feel the dissolution of the boundaries between our bodies and the things we encounter. This loss of control was dreamt of by the Surrealists and offered to them—just one year after the terrifying spectacle of the Degenerate Art show in Munich—by Duchamp in all of his sly perversity.

Tara McDowell is Associate Professor and Director of Curatorial Practice at Monash University in Melbourne.

  1. Glenn Adamson, co-curator with Jane Pavitt of Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 to 1990, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2011, explained: ‘In the 1970s it was still possible to feel that smashing the ideals of modernism would release sufficient kinetic energy to fuel a new era. By the 1990s that fuel had been spent.’ Glenn Adamson, ‘Too Many Teapots? Thoughts on Curating Postmodernism’, The Exhibitionist 6 (June 2012), p. 62. 

  2. A spate of exhibitions, nearly all curated by French philosophers, have followed Les Immatériaux: Bernard Stiegler’s Mémoires du futur (1987); Jacques Derrida’s Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins (1990–91), Jean Starobinski’s Largesse (1994), Julia Kristeva’s Vision capitales (1998), Paul Virilio’s Ce qui arrive (2002), Bruno Latour’s ICONOCLASH: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion, and Art and Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (2002, 2005), and Jean-Luc Nancy’s Le Plaisir au dessin (2007), Georges Didi-Huberman’s Atlas: How to Carry the World on One’s Back (2011); Bernard-Henri Lévy Adventures of Truth (2013); and the exhibitions of Boris Groys, most recently After History: Alexandre Kojève as a Photographer (2012). 

  3. For a superb account and analysis of the exhibition, see Antony Hudek’s ‘From Over- to Sub-Exposure: The Anamnesis of Les Immatériaux’, Tate Papers 12 (October 2009). http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/over-sub-exposure-anamnesis-les-immateriaux. I have also relied on Ashley Woodward’s cogent lecture on the exhibition as part of the 2012 short course on Lyotard, ‘The Inhuman Condition: Nihilism / Information / Art’, at the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy. I thank Spiros Panigirakis for sharing this resource with me. 

  4. The five included ­matériau = ­support (medium), matériel = destinataire (to whom the message is addressed), maternité = destinateur (the message’s emitter), matière = référent (the referent), and matrice = code (the code). 

  5. Driving on the highway between San Diego and Santa Barbara inspired this curatorial conceit: ‘You have to change the car radio wavelength several times, as you go through several different broadcasting zones…. Information circulates by radiation and invisible interfaces.’ Jean-François Lyotard, ‘Les Immatériaux’, Art & Text 17, 1985, p. 54. 

  6. Jean Baudrillard, ‘The Beaubourg Effect: Implosion and Deterrence’, in Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1994. The text was first published in French in the late 1970s. 

  7. This recollection is cited in Hans Ulrich Obrist’s essay ‘After the Moderns, the Immaterials’, which I commissioned for The Exhibitionist 5 (January 2012). Obrist’s citation is Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Hans Ulrich Obrist, The Conversation Series 12, Walter König, Cologne, 2008, p. 35ff. 

  8. Philippe Parreno and Hans Ulrich Obrist, The Conversation Series 14, Walter König, Cologne, 2008, p. 17. 

  9. Lyotard, ‘Les Immatériaux’, p. 48. 

  10. Les Immatériaux: A Conversation with Jean-François Lyotard and Bernard Blistène’, Flash Art 121, March 1985. 

  11. Ibid. 

  12. Ibid. 

  13. Other writers on Les Immatériaux have noted Duchamp’s influence: for John Rajchman the exhibition ‘may be the first Duchampian museum’, and Anthony Hudek writes that ‘Lyotard was explicit in placing Les Immatériaux under the sign of Duchamp’. See Hudek, ‘From Over- to Sub-Exposure: The Anamnesis of Les Immatériaux’. Lyotard wrote extensively about Duchamp between 1974 and 1977, when Duchamp was being rediscovered in France. These collected writings have been published in both French and English. 

  14. Jean-François Lyotard, ‘Qui a peur des “Immatériaux”?’, Le Monde, 3 May 1985, pp. 3–5. 

  15. Baudrillard believed that if anything could be installed in the Pompidou, it should be a labyrinth: ‘Yet—yet…if you had to have something in Beaubourg—it should have been a labyrinth, a combinatory, infinite library, an aleatory redistribution of destinies through games or lotteries—in short, the universe of Borges—or even the circular Ruins…’ Baudrillard, ‘The Beaubourg Effect: Implosion and Deterrence’. 

  16. Lyotard, ‘Les Immatériaux’, p. 54.