By Andrew Hunt
‘The precious far niente was the first and the principle enjoyment I wanted to savour in all its sweetness, and all I did during my sojourn was in effect only the delicious and necessary pursuit of a man who has devoted himself to idleness.’ 1
So said Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the Francophone Genevan philosopher in 1777, who attempted to avoid the dominant regime of the real in his time through forms of philosophical disinterest. Rousseau’s famous fifth walk describes the author’s drift in a boat on Lake Bienne, lying flat on his back in a state of reverie having been temporary exiled on one of the lake’s island for his own safety, due to the controversial nature of his writing.
If this condition of clarity and relaxation exists against the background of extreme stress caused by external social and political hostility – one that equates to contemporary creativity in relation to the twenty-four hour psychological effects of the internet and the associated nature of accelerated labour, Rousseau’s ecstatic state can be read as a revolt against the tyranny of the real that has increasing relevance for us today, a perfect relief where pure subjectivity comes to light. The theorist Peter Sloterdijk has described Rousseau’s behaviour as exemplary of a ‘good for nothing, unworldly and unusable character’ who is ‘more holidaymaker than entrepreneur, more emigrant than world-improver’ free from any ‘idealistic employment programme.’2
I’d suggest that Rousseau’s meditative drift syncopates with JocJonJosch’s performances, which expose our current ‘stress reality’ as provisional, as one possibility among many. As quasi-refugees (each artist in the group holds a different European passport and, as a whole, they have been roaming from country to country for the past decade) they show no will or empire-building spirit that strives for distinction. Their works exist within a tradition of absurd and melancholy fragmented poetry (Samuel Beckett has been a dominant reference point in previous texts about JocJonJosch, alongside the possibilities of ‘failing better’) involving inevitable human collapse or malfunction. Yet their expanded performances also connect to rituals surrounding affirmation and detachment, in that they describe a state of collaborative trance at doing less than nothing (or at least very little at all). Effectively, the artists perform as idle subjects that lack substance in society.3
In keeping with Rousseau’s fifth walk and references to Beckett, the video Worstward Ho (2013) positions the artists in a boat on a lake. In the film’s singular and awkward narrative, each member of the group rows with a separate and isolated purpose, a situation where individual labour combines to push the vessel in circles, its absurd struggle for direction indicating the aforementioned clash between a striving for purpose and its eventual status alongside Rousseau’s aimless dreamer.
Rousseau was of course Swiss and itinerant, while JocJonJosch’s membership consists of an artist from the Valais region of Switzerland, another of Swiss-Czech-Hungarian decent, and a third who is English. Here, post-national identity informs disjunctive collaboration, a ‘wandering of the mind’ that Sloterdijk has hinted could (paradoxically for something so socially useless) effect change to the large-scale psycho-political body we call ‘society’ and serve to reverse a dominant artistic doxa obsessed with direct political and social content.
The ‘glittering indolence’ described by Oscar Wilde also connects with JocJonJosch’s ironic conflation of grand gesture and fatuousness, as well as fine mindedness and effortless inactivity. Wilde famously adopted criticism to describe an art that stalls, one that is in favour of a precocious stylistic finesse, both useless and criminal. In Wilde’s view, the idea of ‘creating difficulties everywhere’ acts as a corrective to self-satisfaction, moralism and a destructive sense of self-evident truth, and in our own time, JocJonJosch’s fractious acts become an ‘absurdly paradoxical occupation’ that upends and makes difficult an underlying bourgeois ‘useful’ art peddled by government institutions obsessed with audience figures. Frivolous acts become a much-needed corrective, where subjectivity is allowed to perform like a nuclear reactor of reverie and subjectivity against a society in which the arts are controlled and sustainable, forced to act within a paternally regulated system of containment.
Similarly, if the role of the artist – and ‘the critic as artist’, for Wilde – is to make a raid on predictability, then using the traditions of fragmentation and melancholy in Beckett and the categories of Conceptual Art and Land Art in relation to JocJonJosch can be seen as slightly unimaginative or at best uninspiring as historical reference points. Instead of paying homage to these categories, I would suggest that their performances operate critically at a time when historical material is being co-opted by artists and academics to serve the interests of an accelerated stress-inducing 24/7 culture. Hal Foster has used the term ‘zombie-performance’ to refer to this tendency with reference to artist Marina Abramovic’s re-hash of Beuys’s How To Explain Pictures To A Dead Hare at MoMA in New York. Foster points out that performance is assumed as an automatic good in public institutions, because it promises presence and is open to audiences, in terms of an attempted transparency in art: you can see the work being made, it’s meant to activate the viewer. Yet the purpose of these re-enactments isn’t for any specific community as it was in the 1970s. Now they exist simply to produce marketing images that promote the institutions that commission them. As such, these works act as ‘sophisticated holograms’ in a hyper-mediated age where it seems that ‘there’s not enough history or indeed present to go around’.
In contrast to the living-dead celebrity art of Abramovic and the historically petrified literary dogma of Beckett, a slower temporality operates in works by JonJocJosch, namely the performances Existere (2011) and Footfall (2016/17). Existere, which involved seventy participants, yet produced no photographic documentation whatsoever, forced the community that saw it to be its only visual witnessness. In its place, documentation appeared in the form of a book of written accounts. This is a situation in which each corroborator became a ‘critic as artist’ or an active player in the creation of a secondary work, which problematised the aforementioned temporality of the piece, in that this critical response as artwork enacted a revenge on philosophy’s traditional critical completion, a classic strategy from Conceptual Art, twisted by a circular literary narrative.
In addition, aside from a reference to the anti-mythology of Tino Seghal (another artist that refuses photographic documentation of his performance works), if JocJonJosch’s work is forced to work as a participatory interpretative text against the restrictions of the ‘zombie’ time that theorists and journalists from Mark Fisher to Jerry Saltz have condemned, then Existere becomes a virtual performance in another manner other than those enacted by major museums and institutions, through the slow secondary mechanical score of the written narrative. This use of language is evident in the more recent exhibition Foot-Kroku-Zvuk–Klingen-Fall in London, which contained Footfall. The exhibition’s title corrupts understanding by combining languages from English, through Czech to German, to produce a text that refers to the motion and sound of the performance itself, an action that consisted of a number of figures covered in mud tramping on a circular bed of earth in a laborious yet languid manner. Again, this performance was similar to Existere, in that it could only be witnessed by those who attended.
It’s in this most recent performance where circular movements in time and space crystallise to reveal a wider theme in JocJonJosch’s work. The motif of the circle is not only evident in Footfall’s bed of earth, the movement of the performers on it and the progression of language in the work’s title. It is repeated in the circular trajectory of the boat in Worstward Ho, the aforementioned reflection of progression in critical interpretation in Existere, in the cavities of the earth works in Dig Shovel Dig, Ardez (2013) and Dig Shovel Dig, Aldeburgh (2014), in the form of the sculpture Rased Totems (2016) in Martigny, in Tool (2016) – a circle cut by three spades in grass – and in the photographic work Black Holes (2009), which present various false voids in post-industrial interiors.
This circuitousness translates into a temporal dimension that moves from the zombie time of the perpetual ‘now’ of the present to the slower ‘dilated’ presence that Henri Bergson spoke of, in terms of pure perception as ‘an infinitely dilated duration,’ as knowledge of the absolute and of real life through first-person intuition, over predetermined intelligence. Interestingly, within pop culture, the move from The Beatles’ early works to late 1960s psychedelia contains this same progression, with the album Revolver operating as the historical turning point (connected to a counter-cultural class consciousness), a point where the increased consumption of acid opened out onto a dilated pre-modern pre-historic time of looped sounds and labyrinthine circles, a situation where a continuous downstream unfolding of a melody such as Tomorrow Never Knows goes nowhere until it circles around to become a conclusive rebirth.4
Moreover, in relation to the circular black hole of time, these works relate to the early historical avant-garde and Kazimir Malevich’s black paintings, which existed as portals into which all history could be thrown in a post-revolutionary Russia. Malevich’s text On The Museum from 1919, for example, calls for the burning of art heritage of previous epochs, yet he did not intend this as a nihilistic destruction; instead he had faith that the past remains in the present, despite our attempts at conservation. He had a faith in the innate indestructibility of art.5 For Malevich, priests and engineers (in our present day, politicians and curators) cannot relax and accept failure and imperfection as their true fate. But artists can. And JocJonJosch can.
As in Malevich, JocJonJosch discover themselves as an active negation within the fullness of the world. Through precarious acts of digging, semi-invisible performances and the void of the camera, their dynamic emptiness devours, destroys, consumes and annihilates all things – including historical Land Art, the writings of Beckett and the zombie-time of contemporary art institutions and museums – in an attempt to re-arrange reified art history and ignite new conversations in a recently re-dilated present.
1 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Reveries Of The Solitary Walker, 1782. Page 64.
2 See Peter Sloterdijk, Stress And Freedom, Polity Press, 2016.
3 In Sloterdijk’s terms, the individual subject becomes a positive spectre or phantom. Rather than being narcissistic, the centred subject presents a ‘me’ or ‘I’ that is fundamentally social. This is because Rousseau uses the term ‘la revolution’ repeatedly in his reveries with reference to his solitude, which bears social and political meaning: society and solitude being correlative terms. Although Rousseau is situated outside restrictive society, in his view he is still the most sociable of men.
4 See Katie Kapurch and Kenneth Womack (Eds.), New Critical Perspectives On The Beatles: Things We Said Today (Pop Music, Culture And Identity), Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, page 131.
5 For a wider description of this idea see Boris Groys, In The Flow, Verso, 2016.