Fifteen Ways to Leave Badiou

Photo by Sipa Sipa Press

Fifteen Ways to Leave Badiou
Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum, 2011

In the period between April and October 2011, fifteen artists, mostly based in Egypt and the greater Middle East, were invited to respond to Alain Badiou’s “Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art.” Among the many curiosities of this project is its timing, nearly a decade after the talk was first delivered at the Drawing Center in New York, and just months after the onset of the insurgence that now animates much of the Arab world. The result was a book, in Arabic and English, with the mysteriously insouciant title Fifteen Ways to Leave Badiou, organized by Bassam al-Baroni, cofounder and artistic director of the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum. Badiou’s philosophical framework, oscillating between questions of truth and universality in relation to art, is subjected to critique by Suhail Malek, a lecturer in critical theory at Goldsmiths in London, and the artists’ responses follow. (Or, perhaps: depart.)

Badiou’s theses were and are discomfiting, both for their vast assumptions and condensations, and in their prescriptiveness. The philosopher addresses the field of art at large in mostly pompous, and soaring, Fifteen Ways to Leave Badiou, mapping out his notion of an idealized art form that carries within it “the process of truth.” This art, which develops from what Badiou calls an “impure form,” ought to be “non-imperial art” — or in al-Baroni’s words, “art which is not in the service of empire.” But precisely what that might mean, what work these theses might enable or abort, where to go next, this is what al-Baroni set out to stage, in the form of a book. That Badiou has been an enthusiast of Arab uprisings of the past year is unsurprising, perhaps, but it lends a degree of poignancy, even, to the project.

It seems appropriate to situate the book within the primary challenge of what John Searle addresses in his text “What is an Institution?” Searle, the philosopher, offers that there is something fundamental to the composition of the institution that makes it impossible for us to think beyond it, whether that institution assumes the form of language, the economy, or, one might even add, art. If we assume that this unprecedented time brings about lateral possibility and freedom of expression, then Fifteen Ways to Leave Badiou sits within a rhetorical rumination: does this project presume Badiou and his centrality to the practices of the participating artists? Are the artists invited already in a natural conversation with Badiou’s thought and theory? Are the premises that inspired this project and its underlying assumptions clear in the first place?

The book is a dense philosophical provocation, the bulk of which is dealt with through the central component of contributions, which make up half the book. The artistic responses are also (literally) preceded by Malek’s critique of Badiou’s didacticism, which in turn follows the publication of Badiou’s original lecture. The order of appearance — the artistic contributions straddled between the English (and Arabic translation) of Baroni’s intro, Badiou’s lecture and theses, and Malek’s criticism — leaves the text (also the variation in design and paper choices) to literally contain the artistic contributions. Questions seep out of this format: Does an artistic contribution in this context rely on the textual criticism? What is the relationship of each thesis to each response? Does the artistic response to a thesis have something to say about the work’s agency? Each thesis is followed by an artistic contribution, as well as a biographical note and a short statement by the artist. If we imagine this project differently, as an exhibition rather than a book, the artwork might assume a more central presence, with the theses serving as endnotes to the project. But if it were an exhibition, would these works, given the essence they present, work? Would their reading be so directed by the itinerary of how they have been solicited?

A closer reading of the fifteen contributions reveals at least a few patterns worth lingering over. Most contributions, save for two — Doa Aly’s and that of the recently founded artist collective STANCE — are visual. Aly’s and STANCE’s contributions consist of text treated as image. Most of the contributions employ some degree of textual explication, in relation to, or embedded within the image. Iman Issa’s response to the tenth thesis “non-imperial art is necessarily abstract art…” which is comprised of graphics, lines, symbols, and a text, is a somewhat methodological analysis of a visual image of a flag that she had used in an earlier work, and a meditation on its abstraction and reading as form. Issa’s contribution is dialogical; the outlines of her position are visually as well as textually manifest in her response. Similarly, if more implicitly, are the graphic contributions of Mohamed Abdelkarim, with “an allied straight line,” exclaiming “contemporary art cannot be democratic,” and Hassan Khan’s Knot (executed by the book designer following the artist’s instructions), followed with a note by the artist in which he contends with Badiou’s sixth thesis: “The subject of an artistic truth is a set of the works that compose it.” Other contributions are more associative and can be read tangentially. Adel El Siwi presents a reproduction of a recent painting, Esam Mahrous and the Fortune Teller, with a cursive inscription in the center of the mirrored figures stating “art is not / art is,” presumably commenting on the deterministic essence of the theses. Akram Zaatari’s contribution, drawn from an investigation of an archive, seems to resonate with the premise of “raw material” that appears in the eighth thesis, which requires an imaginative associative reading to fully return to Badiou, if only to depart from him again. Some works appear to be “readings” of their thesis, visual translations in which the images are diagrammatic; other contributions are statements, positions, or elaborations to the text, or encrypted criticisms of the theses.

Reading between the thesis and the work, the reader is left to construct a relationship between these elements. Mohamed Allam and Oraib Toukan both encounter Badiou in conversation (Allam on Facebook, Toukan in person at Lucky Strike, a bar in New York). Here a tiny detail must be underlined. While I believe that the artists truly did meet Badiou and have in fact had these conversations, the editors describe these encounters as alleged and imaginary, respectively — perhaps in an effort to remain within the literal, the real, to hold onto a sense of truthfulness, which I think we should be allowed to suspend.

Let us go back to before the beginning. Why do we start by leaving Badiou to in the first place? There is unmistakable bad faith at play here. One reason may be a general desire to instigate a critical engagement between artists and the philosophical text. It is a simple, direct method that means to say: Badiou (whatever he stands for) cannot be ignored. Another is an undisclosed intentionality that is ambiguous about its relationship to Badiou, but uses him, quite likely, as a decoy, a stand-in for fixed notions of art’s universality and truth, that resonates with an old-guard cultural milieu particularly in Egypt. Perhaps it is a roundabout (or not so roundabout) means of allowing a critique to surface — a critique, again, of remnants of the order that has just been radically uprooted.

Still, it is perhaps one of the ironies of the project that the means of deploying the project resonate with the very retrograde system it seeks to interrogate. To not presume Badiou at this moment seems necessary. If the momentous and heroic events of the past year mean anything at all, let us set him aside for a moment, to allow for a thought process free of the burdens of radical critique, free of the constraints of the well-intended yet somewhat forced response.