Locating Claire Fontaine

[uds-billboard name=”fontaine”]Culled from current artistic strategies, Claire Fontaine is at once the contemporary every-artist and a non-existent fictional subject. A ready-made artist, with a ready-made name, taken from a brand of French stationary, she exists purely in a state of exhaustion. The work of fictive Claire Fontaine is realized by her Paris-based “assistants,” Fulvia Carnevale and James Thornhill, and is often made in such well-worn territories as neon signs, found objects, paintings, and videos. Even the materials themselves might now be considered exhausted. Fontaine rethinks the medium of found objects to include the appropriation of generalized contemporary art aesthetics. However, there’s more to her work than repeating tired strategies. She enters object-oriented contemporary practices incognito not only to symptomize our current political conditions but also to challenge ideas of art’s capacity for social change.

The mythology surrounding Claire Fontaine’s identity and work has been bolstered by a plethora of writing by Carnevale and Thornhill. Perhaps compensating for her lack of an actual voice, the artist’s texts and interviews have played a prominent role in her reception. In addition, the collective has strategically aligned with publications and institutions that support the discourse of neo-conceptual art. For an artist who uses subversive techniques to engage the topic of economic systems, the galleries she is represented by are a crucial component to her reception. These include Metro Pictures, Regina Gallery, Air de Paris, and Galerie Neu and other institutions that highly prioritize theoretically backed work. Reena Spaulings Fine Art, for example, is another fictitious artist and dealer. A problem arises, however, when the rhetoric which props up her artistic practice is taken at face value and then blindly projected without being compared and contrasted to the way the objects function on their own, as well as within the established art world system. This is something the collective is well aware of and in an interview she states, “There is very little critical engagement with our work and it seems as if it doesn’t interest intellectuals and art historians. They might think that we perform the critical engagement ourselves with our own texts, which is totally wrong.”1 In other words, if Claire Fontaine’s texts are an integral component to her practice, not a separate critical reply, how then does her object-based work contribute to this discursive practice?

Before delving into Claire Fontaine’s very acute and self-aware position on art and politics, an analysis of her 2011 exhibition at Metro Pictures, Working Together, will aid in unhinging the rhetoric from her work. This isn’t to say that the works themselves lack a political edge, but rather, the aim is to dislodge her supporting philosophy from the way the objects function within a space in order to demystify her stakes in contemporary art. I am not claiming that a dichotomy exists between a naive uninformed viewer and privileged informed viewer; if a viewer is not aware of the collective’s political position, then this “outside viewer” might waiver between assuming Claire Fontaine’s work is sincere and grasping the tongue in cheek commentary that it is. That indeterminate reading could very well be the artist’s intention. I am also not claiming that a dichotomy exists vice versa: uninformed as good and informed as bad. To do so would be to ask for a return to the modernist notion of the autonomous art object suspended from the everyday flow of time and space. I simply aim to uncover the benefits and problems coming from either side of the insider/outsider dichotomy, and to consider the spectrum between the two. For instance, just as one cannot know everything there is to know about the history which has led up to Claire Fontaine’s practice, one also cannot enter a gallery without at least some set of basic knowledge about spaces set apart for art to inhabit.

In its entirety, Working Together is visually lackluster for a viewer entering without insight to Claire Fontaine’s practice. You can sense her boredom with found objects in her half-hearted attempts to mimic the recently bygone era of finding simple beauty in displacing everyday objects in a white cube. This complicity with the art world paired with the subversion of it might explain the title of the exhibition, Working Together. The title could also illustrate the inherent double voice guiding the practice. “As a collaborative, no single voice dominates in Fontaine’s practice; rather, everything arises out of conversation”6 explains curator Ruba Katrib in an exhibition text on Claire Fontaine. A few of the pieces in the show were unable to get at the crux of the matter through sheer visibility and required short captions provided by the gallery.

A large raw canvas, titled Gather in Multiple Groups (2011), hangs in the lobby of the gallery. Excepts from a flier found in New York’s Zuccotti Park, left behind by Occupy Wall Street protesters, are stenciled in green and orange spray paint. The text reads as short, pragmatic instructions: “gather in multiple groups,” “link up to each other,” “identify your surroundings,” “define your boundaries and defend them.” The appropriated phrases are now fixed, monumentalized, and immobile as they hang more sizably in the lobby with a sizable new price to match. The once dispensable, utilitarian texts have been transformed through the luxury commodity object of the painting. The strategies and slogans are now universalized and could be mapped onto any real or abstract organization of people. The primary conviction of the Occupy protesters, using bodies in a space to assert their noncompliance with corporate greed has been lost and all of their original political intention has been flushed from the text.

Dispersed throughout the first two rooms of the gallery are nine large monochrome paintings, each drenched in a different color, and silk-screened over in black are portions of an interview taken from a popular men’s fashion magazine. The conversation is between fashion designer Marc Jacobs and artist Richard Prince. Like the Occupy protester’s texts on canvas, the interview has been grossly commodified through the traditional medium of painting. However, opposite the forceful redirection of the OWS instructions, the spectacle of the art world is magnified twofold, creating an art object that highlights a text on art’s direct comparison with fashion. The conversation takes place with art and fashion existing on the same horizontal field, both men contributing anecdotes about why art is fashion and why fashion is art, while never contesting the other. Is Claire Fontaine’s objective here to actually champion this claim that art and fashion have identical criteria? The titles, groups of words taken directly from the silk-screened interview, suggest the hint of mockery necessary to understand her actual motives. While referencing Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q., Jacobs flippantly descries it as “the most subversive thing,” which becomes the title of the work. This once unassuming phrase, now highlighted, takes on the burden of actually claiming to know “the most subversive thing.” Though most of the canvases are hung at standard levels on the gallery’s walls, one hangs from black construction scaffolding installed along one side of the gallery, exposing the wood and canvas backing while the other side is only visible by entering the scaffolding. Using a scaffolding as a display mechanism draws forth a clumsy notion of street art, or “everyday” life outside the space sanctioned off for art as the two are forcefully and unsuccessfully married.

Opposite the scaffolding are two smaller canvases with silk-screened pie charts which were directly pulled from a self-help book. The first, Identifying Success (2011), breaks down the vague notion of “success” into personality traits consisting of precisely 15% skills and IQ and the remaining 85% emotional intelligence. The second, Communicating Non Verbally (2011), is fractioned off into 55% body language, 38% speech, and 7% words. While the charts might at first be read as authoritative and established data, the qualities they aim to represent are immeasurable and subjective. Likewise, the percentages are completely arbitrary. These can be read as small examples that prompt us to reconsider other information we’ve been given, which might not deserve to be assumed as fact. They provide the possibility to go back and analyze the structures we have always envisioned to be right, stable, or permanent and renew our understanding of them as structures that are permeable, even imaginary. The use of the pie charts could be complicated once more by recognizing that in order to make sense of the world and communicate, there comes a point where lines must be drawn, spaces must be delineated, and definitions formed. These structures, ranging from linguistic, political, visual, economic, or social, must then be acknowledged as both unstable and utilized nonetheless in the process of defining and redefining meaning and values.

Sitting on a plinth in the middle of one of the rooms is the piece Untitled (The Invisible Hand) (2011). This Newton’s Cradle, or pendulum, is comprised of a series of small metal spheres. The two silver marble-sized balls on either end take turns swinging while the spheres in the middle remain stationary. Normally found as an office decoration or desk accessory, this particular model has been rigged by battery so that the piece is in continuous motion. Below the swinging spheres is a model of a dark green tennis court with a shiny gold net with “networking” in gold letters at the base. The “executive toy” turned miniature game renders a master/slave scenario. As if there are small-scaled tennis players trapped in an eerie and absurd never ending back-and-forth while the one in corporate control is merely amused by the frivolous monotony of the game taking place on his desk.

In the largest room of the gallery, Redemptions (2011) consists of multiple clear plastic trash bags which are filled with aluminum cans and hang from the ceiling at varying eye-level heights. The collections of aluminum cans once exchangeable for a few dollars or euros, are now worth thousands. Raised to the status of art objects, the colorful hovering collage of Coke and Bud Light cans are now seen in a financial double vision. Does the class status of the viewer determine which of the two economic values is recognized? Bags such as these are normally in close relation to the ground, on the street, in the corner of an office, in a bin at home, yet in the gallery, the levitating bags, sometimes slowly spinning, are abstracted and almost transcendent. They have become almost fakes of themselves, merely hypothetical bags of cans, just as most of the money in the world is now no longer physical money, existing only in collectively assumed forms. To conclude, Working Together takes place in the sphere of the intellectual and conceptual, counter to the emotional, or sensational. It is neither affecting nor tactile, but instead a sterile laboratory of visual culture.

While Claire Fontaine’s alignments with Marxist ideologies are present in Working Together, they are more overt in her texts and interviews. In past work, her political views are visually less subtle than seen in Working Together. Though this by no means simplifies the work. For example, Capitalism Kills Love (2009), made in red, white, and blue neon with “love” flickering on and off. The sign reads like a slogan, an assertive statement of protest, yet speaks to the personal and emotional effects of the economic crisis. Yet in late capitalism, all slogans of protest or advertising are easily consumed, causing even the most explicit political material to exist as a mirage, an empty double, and therein lies Fontaine’s objective.

In positioning Claire Fontaine within the historiography of art, to ask her work to exist neatly contained within her exhibition of art objects would be to disregard the conceptual material of art which has existed and been reinvented many times over since the birth of the avant-garde. Although the pieces in Working Together are not intended to be read as autonomous art objects, but rather as a part of a larger practice, the question remains, what text or discursive based information is crucial to access her work at large? Not surprisingly, as Fontaine always seems one step ahead of identifying theoretical holes in her practice, she is mindful of the constant flux between the discursive and the object-based aspects of her work. She states, “the struggle to find the satisfactory form is actually the biggest part of our work…we always have to reconstruct the references we use, the political context we’re referring to, and the circumstances of how the works are produced and exhibited.”1

Overall, Working Together is intentionally appropriation-heavy, or to be more precise, expropriated-heavy. Fontaine “steal(s) to redistribute”2, “to create a sharing, an accessibility, a political reinvestment of what (she is) producing”2. This concept of expropriation, or détournement, was originally conceived by Guy Debord and the Situationists International group who have heavily influenced Fontaine. Détournement was developed in the 1950s as a subversive tactic to turn capitalist strategies against themselves. Using familiar imagery, the artist mimics the media, replacing the original capitalistic messages with those that are antithetical or antagonistic. To return for a moment to the exhibition, consider the titles derived from the Marc Jacobs and Richard Prince Interview. Unlike artists who have used the strategy of détournement more explicitly, as in Barbara Kruger’s advertisements which moralize consumer culture, Claire Fontaine’s expropriation is more subtle, only showing through the source material briefly, which is why symptomizing our current cultural and political landscape would be a more appropriate term to describe Claire Fontaine’s practice.

Guy Debord’s strategy of détournement extended past the Situationalists and went on to influence the punk movement of the late 70’s as well as the culture jamming movement of the late 80’s. Today, Claire Fontaine takes a more self aware and guarded approach. She quotes, “in our lifetime, we’ve only had the chance to see the effects of the Situationalist religion, this purism and extreme moralism that doesn’t help to change anything at all. We needed to make fun of such a paradoxical position. But today, maybe it’s like shooting the ambulance.”1 Above all, Claire Fontaine aims “to transcribe symptoms of the crisis, visually, and conceptually.”3 Her practice resides somewhere between art for the cause of social change and art for art’s sake. Her practice sympathizes with an observation made by T.J. Clark, that “it is easier to define what methods to avoid than propose a set of methods for systematic use, like a carpenter presenting his bag of tools”.4

While Claire Fontaine’s texts and interviews tell us that for her, the largest grievances lie in the conditions of late capitalism, she struggles to assert art’s ability to cause revolution. She states, “from the moment that consumption became an unavoidable aspect of the constitution of our life forms, we lost the hope the avant-gardes had of using art as a means of liberating life.”2 This state of resignation can be compared with the German born, Jewish artist Charlotte Posenenske who grew up during World War II. Posenenske stopped making work in 1968 when she was no longer able to justify art’s capacity to create social change or draw attention to human injustices and social inequalities. Instead, she became a social worker until her death in 1985 and had no interest in art during that time. Claire Fontaine takes this a step further. Not only has she surrendered to believing in art’s capacity for political change, but the collective is resigned to live in accordance with their beliefs and claims: “it’s not easy to designate the enemy because that’s also part of who we are, due to our complicity in the system that produces us as subjects.”2 In fact, if their own beliefs weren’t first compromised, they may have followed in Posenenske’s footsteps, claiming, “if we could get down to changing this state of things we wouldn’t make art”.2 Again, why then, are Claire Fontaine’s assistants still making work, still showing in galleries, museums, and biennials? While she reacts from a place “of political impotency”2, she began making art from “a space of immediacy, where (she) stopped pondering the pros and cons… (she) created a field of formal intervention…an immaterial space of communism.”2 In other words, only through her complete surrender to reality, was a space for a political voice created.

The interruptions will come from elsewhere, and, for us, making art is a way of staying awake until those moments occur.

Claire Fontaine’s position on art and politics is incredibly clever, even sly, which complicates identifying her stakes in art making. In pairing strong rhetoric with a conceptually slippery object-based practice, a justifiable critique might be that she adjusts her stance in order to “have her cake and eat it too.” Meaning, her position provides a way to hold tight to Marxist ideologies without the burden and strife that comes with proposing new strategies and structures, no matter how practically impossible they might be; demanding the impossible is a legitimate tactic, as Judith Butler made a case for in her Occupy Wall Street rally this past October.7 It might also be suggested that Claire Fontaine’s collaborative voice paired with her fictional pseudonym dodges the responsibility of position staking, but the artists claim the virtuous cause for anonymity of protecting the work’s integrity without allowing the collective’s individual personas to overtake Claire Fontaine’s reception. Yet, looking back on her strategic alignment with art institutions and the control of her reception through text, is this accomplished?

What Claire Fontaine has accomplished successfully, is the embodiment of Jacques Rancère’s description of art’s “new modesty.” Ranciere’s Aesthetics as Politics answers a central question which surfaces in Claire Fontaine’s practice, as to whether claiming to uphold communist ideologies and value horizontal power structures while working within the traditional structures of the art world is hypocritical, with attention seeking as a core motive, or whether it is sincere, a bit surrendered, but ultimately a realistic way to carve out a place for a voice. When considering a fundamentally “political” stance one might take on art, the avant-garde is incapable of speaking to “the people” and fueling social change. While from the perspective of the avant-garde, “political art” is propaganda, and can only speak from the artist’s personal position rather than carrying out any intention for change. Or, “political art” is a community service project claiming to be an art practice, in which case, the criteria for criticality has not yet been formed. Claire Fontaine situates herself between these two, a position which few artists either desire or successfully achieve, creating a third position described by Rencière. He writes, “Instead of making a contrast between artistic radicallity and aesthetic utopia, this other position endeavors to keep the two equally at a distance. It replaces them with the proclamation of art’s new modesty – it is modest not only as regards its capacity to transform the world, but also as regards claims about the singularity of its objects.”4 While holding at bay both an art that aims for a social utopia and high art’s assumed radicality, considering today’s canonization and institutionalization of relational aesthetics, why does Claire Fontaine continue to make objects when her practice is rooted in discourse?

Rencière claims that while this modest “other” position “is not the founding of a common world through the absolute singularity of form; it is a way of redepositing the objects and images that comprise the common world as it is already given, or of creating situations apt to modify our gazes and attitudes with respect to this collective environment.”5 This returns us to Claire Fontaine’s “expropriation-heavy” exhibition of redistributed imagery. Preexisting objects and images are borrowed and taken a step further in Claire Fontaine’s object-based work to include the redistribution of what we currently define as contemporary art and potentially the structures that prescribe it. “Potentially” is used here because merely acknowledging the artist’s function within the system, as Claire Fontaine does in claiming “the contemporary art world is several different worlds at once, all of which are concealed in the large stomach and intestine of Capital.”1 This position does not make an effort to modify perception, or even note that the collective takes issue with forced complicity. Nonetheless, Claire Fontaine’s redistribution of contemporary art imagery is irrefutably qualifiable as what Rencière describes as “micro-situations, which vary only slightly from those of ordinary life are presented in an ironic and playful vein rather than a critical and denunciatory one, aim to create or re-create bonds between individuals, to give rise to new models of confrontation and participation.”5

Rencière suggests that art carries with it a vanishing point since the utopia which it aims for no longer calls for political agency or aesthetic sensibilities. In other words, “there is a contradiction that is originally and unceasingly at work. The work’s solitude carries a promise of emancipation. But the fulfillment of that promise amounts to the elimination of art as a separate reality, its transformation into a form of life.”5 Claire Fontaine embodies this contradiction. By unhinging her rhetoric and mythology from the exhibition, we find that through the redistribution of found imagery and adoption of other people’s styles, the objects are, as many have described them1&6, merely “empty vessels.” So, while the art objects are both visible and capable of expressing Claire Fontaine’s objectives, her work proper is in fact, entirely immaterial.



1 Huberman, Anthony. “Claire Fontaine.” BOMB Magazine. 105/Fall 2008.
2 Kelsey, John. “Claire Fontaine interviewed by John Kelsey.” http://www.clairefontaine.ws/interviews.html
3 Jerry Saltz. “Musings on the Mutinies to Come.” Artnet. http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/features/saltz/saltz10-25-05.asp
4 Clark, Timothy J. “On the Social History of Art.” Image of the People. London: Thames and Hudson, 1973. Print.
5 Rancière, Jacques. “Aesthetics as Politics.” Dissensus: on Politics and Aesthetics. London: Continuum, 2010. Print.
6 Katrib, Ruba and McDonough, Tom. Claire Fontaine: Economies. North Miami, FL: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2010. Print.
7 Judith Butler. Demanding the Impossible. 2011. http://www.egs.edu/faculty/judith-butler/videos/demanding-the-impossible/

Works Referenced
Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Eastbourne: Soul Bay, 2009. Print.
Fontaine, Claire. Artist Texts. http://www.clairefontaine.ws/text.html
Pesch, Martin. “Charlotte Posenenske.” Frieze Magazine. March-April 2000. http://www.frieze.com/issue/review/charlotte_posenenske/
Rancière, Jacques. “The Art of the Possible: Fulvia Carnevale and John Kelsey in conversation with Jacques Ranciere.” Artforum. March 2007.

Claire Fontaine: Working Together was on view at Metro Pictures, in New York, NY November 3 – December 17, 2011.
Images courtesy of Metro Pictures.

Marie Heilich, New York City: regular contributor
Marie Heilich is a curator and M.A. candidate at Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies. Her recently organized exhibitions include Jillian Conrad: On Tenterhooks at Webster University’s Cecille R. Hunt Gallery (2011) and Cellar Door, a group exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (2010). She worked as a Curatorial Intern at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, White Flag Projects, and is an alumina of the Independent Curators International Curatorial Intensive program in New York.

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