Time, object, goods
diedrich diederichsen

IMAGINE AN OBJECT beyond its physical constitution as a record or storage, temporally constant to some degree, of all the processes that take place during the time it took to produce it. When Robert Morris recorded the sound of an object’s production and added that to the object itself, he limited himself to the sonic traces of the manual production of a wooden box (Box with the Sound of its own making, 1961). But of course, the time someone took to acquire the necessary skills to actually build the object is also part of the total time crystallized in the object. Therefore, an object “contains” not only the time necessary for its production, but also the time necessary for producing the producer and, more precisely, even the time necessary to produce the institutions that produced the producer, naturally referred to only as part of the total amount of time the producer needed for said object and relative to the rest of the time he spent in applying what he learned, albeit differently, somewhere else. We will limit ourselves to the time humans spend with the material – and of course the material itself also has its own historical, geological, biological and cosmic time. Nevertheless, our interest lies in the time that can be valued, and that time translates as hours of labor.

In this sense, three main methods of object production are known to the arts. The first would be the technical recording of a practice not in and of itself object-oriented, like music or dance. A sound or image recording is made that, in a certain way, becomes the objectual result of an artistic activity based on time, and not only contains that activity, but can even reproduce or select it (not without loss, naturally). It has long been possible to rework, assemble and stratify the recordings themselves, which would previously fall under the production of a sculpture, although the temporal dimension of assembly and stratification can no longer be separated from the process as a whole.

The second would be the object as a result of an activity directed towards it that, following production, and contrary to the case of audio recordings or video footage, can no longer be brought back to life: like, for instance, a sculpture. However, writing music also falls into this genre, because its temporality cannot be underlined; only a performance following the score’s indications could be selected according to the first method. On the other hand, an entire lifetime can be dedicated to working in a ten-second composition.

The third and least objectual method is the product of artistic learning processes in live human beings, such as musicians or actors: muscle memory, memorization, technique mastery, symbols, styles of thought. Here we are dealing, thus, with a kind of live abstraction: the knowledge learned shortens originally time-consuming activities; and as such, time for learning must be invested, during which one learns to abstract from such activities. Only through mediation institutions and learning will this knowledge become more traditional, stable and objectual.

THERE IS STILL, HOWEVER, a fourth form of producing an object that contains a work of art and/or the time required for its production, and that would be the legal form. I define part or all of the time required for a work of art as the object of an agreement, and as an action regulated by laws and conventions. I define as legally binding, above all, future time – the possible destinations of past time, no matter how it was stored. It has become evident that even living people, as well as fragile situational systems comprised of people and other participants, are contractually defined, represented and defined in a relatively objectual sense. And that is naturally a highly regarded means of production in contemporary art – from Yves Klein to Tino Sehgal.

All four types of object, or aggregates of past time and labor time, are united by the fact that they share ontological and material premises that allow their production time to take on the form of goods. All four types of transformed time can be exchanged for money, from which time can, in fact, be detached and gained, if so desired. As we know, it is possible to buy time, especially other people’s; one’s own time can only be bought indirectly. Only as such can the concept of storage make sense, only through money (and, with arduous construction, also through exchange) does the “storer” give back what was put into it: time.

Inadequately paying for bought time (thus for less than what it could gain if sold through a different medium) is, as we know, part of everyday capitalism: surplus value arises only through negotiation with living people who sell their time. The predominance of exchange value over use value within capitalist societies, tendentially linked to the goods, results in certain methods of transferring, gathering, and storing time being better than others, in both pragmatic and exchange terms: such as those which abstract as much as possible the differences between objects – for instance, money. However, this does not mean that the possibility of exchange could be completely avoided through eccentric aggregate situations, but, generally speaking, the pragmatism of exchange value tends towards abstraction, and therefore produced not only money, but also container-filled ships and… the white cube. Both represent lower stages of abstraction than that of money, but they converge towards it.

The white cube allows for the stacking of objects of the second type – i.e. all sorts of things spread across space – within its interior, in a symbolically similar way to what a container in the cargo ship does with its contents. In a way, the content becomes equal in both cases. But only within the expanded model of time objectivation in art production (which, like material objects that aggregate past time, can also stack a certain amount of time, both future and past, onto legal pieces, as if it were art) does the current expansion in the valuation of artistic production become distinguishable. There is still money in the arts private sector, and those who also spend it privately learn, more and more, to equally recognize and appreciate non-obejctual “objects” as storing living labor time with exchange potential. The business model of multiple recording, on the other hand, has clearly suffered under the new digital circumstances. Physical storage of skills and abilities, in turn, suffer due to scarce government funding and the resulting deterioration of educational institutions and venues for music, dance, performance art, theater, etc. As a result, both objectual forms will probably have a smaller role in the future. The future, on the contrary, belongs to the white cubes – including those that disguise themselves as something else, which we call a project – and to briefcases filled with contracts, because they assemble objects that private individuals are willing to spend money on (which they can then liquidate or turn into prestigious urban constructions that carry their names), and because they depend neither on a paying audience nor on a technical reproduction or public funding. This holds true also for contractual works of art, despite the fact that the latter rarely reveal their status as objects, and, when they do, it’s no more than a nostalgic nod to Conceptual Art – to whose administrative aesthetics, by the way, we owe some of the techniques found in the contractual form.

IT MAY BE OBJECTED that the collectors have collected what is rare or of rare quality, and not something that took a lot of work to make. But no, they collect something that carries a great deal of qualitative and quantitative work – with the right mixture between good artistic work and work classified as good art. Value arises from human work. And that goes also for the value of rare work. Nothing is absolutely rare, but rare is a condition that needs to be deemed relevant in cultural terms. The concept of rarity fantasized as absolute is merely a cover for another activity; a new, highly specialized activity, and one that was respectively expensive in the past: that of ascribing relevance, i.e. differentiating between relevant and irrelevant rarity. Because rare is everything – even the dirt under my nails – but pompous Dr. Suckerpunch, the graduate waste manager, is just unaware that he needs a contract granting him the rights to that dirt, because no relevance attributer or, better said, chain of relevance attributers has made that clear to him yet. By this I don’t mean to arrive at the old philistine judgment that the status of art is nothing but a scam, whereby intellectual slyboots sell a pig in a poke to credulous well-heeled clients. On the contrary: this selling of pigs in pokes, and that attribution of relevance, are not random activities. They must base themselves on characteristics found palpably at hand. But, insofar as they bring order to an amorphous multitude of produced objects, they anchor, so to speak, the last ship on the artistic goods – and this activity has become increasingly important, more valuable, and ultimately even responsible, more so than the activities of the notorious assistants, for prices, and especially profit margins, going up – because this highly specialized operation is something you and I will almost always do for free. Not so much when we write an article or give a lecture – that is merely the official margin of our relevance-attributing production – but most importantly where and to the extent that we are the Art World. It’s not so much the experts who ascribe relevance to artistic objects as, first and foremost, the visible presence of beautiful, important, authentic, and otherwise desirably living people at parties and on social networks associated with the production and presentation of art. In the age of contracts, our activity has become ever more significant because it is – like so many other components of current production, specifically artistic production – unregulated.

CONTRACTS CAN COVER the results of unregulated relations without having to determine their underlying processes. Higher levels of abstraction are also known as progress in the realm of art. This is not merely an illusion. The contractual form allows us to determine infinitely complex and vast objects or processes as coherent entities that no other physical format or form could contain. The decisive factor, however, is that works of art either add to or oppose their natural, and always inevitable, character as a good, insofar as they cannot be distinguished at will by just anyone, that is, to the extent that something concrete can encompass abstraction dialectically. This concrete quality must refer to its recipients and to its time.

While money can, most of the time, be singled out as the work of others, whose manpower and work put into doing something can be hired, the aesthetic experience relates to time itself, and its aperture, rather than that of a legal format, from which, on top of that, more and more of the other storage formats tends to escape. Once these other models of time storage become utterly devalued and worn out, so will the temporal forms of reception be lost. Nothing will remain of the great artistic freedom the contractual form seems to afford, other than its legal framework and the coherence it ensures – the task of lending it relevance will ultimately rely on its dry decoding on the one hand and, on the other hand, to grand DeMille stage productions with as much human material and Art World as possible.

Thanks to Tom Holert for a conversation on contracts.

DIEDRICH DIEDERICHSEN (born August 15, 1957 in Hamburg) is a writer, critic, curator and professor. Currently considered one of the most important theorists on pop culture, he teaches at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts and is the author of works such as Sexbeat and Über Pop-Musik.