The following argument is dedicated to the renewed wish for objects and materiality in art and curating. Thinking about things and non-things is also due to our present situation, since we cannot meet in real space, but in virtual space.
As the title indicates, an emphasis on things, new materialism, actor-network theory, and the like, always makes me feel uncomfortable, not to say unhappy. Have we not been here before, and have we not, with good reason, rejected the auratic view of things? What is the thing, or even the thing in itself, and why is there this cyclically recurring nostalgia for the thing in its pure aspect? Let us think about the question in a number of stages. Firstly, the present day; secondly, we will examine the positioning of the “thing”; thirdly, we will make an attempt at the deconstruction of subject and object, and fourthly, we will consider this thing in the context of the exhibiting institution.
First: The Present
In an essay included in The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design, Vilém Flusser describes the historical moment of the digitalization of all aspects of life as follows: “Until recently, our environment consisted of things: houses and furniture, machines and motor vehicles, clothing and underwear, books and pictures, tins and cigarettes. There were also people in our environment, but science had largely made them into objects: like all other things, they are measurable, quantifiable and easily manipulated. In short, the environment was the condition in which we existed.” Now, however, we have been catapulted into the world of non-things, and find ourselves, with some sense of disorientation, confronted with processes that we have difficulty understanding. In Flusser, the nostalgic tone is already perceptible: “Non-things now flood our environment from all directions, displacing things. These non-things are called ‘information.’” And in what is envisaged as a phenomenological sketch, he attempts to describe these non-things: “It is immaterial information. The electronic pictures on the television screen, the data stored in computers, all the reels of film and microfilm, holograms and programs, are such ‘soft’ ware that any attempt to grasp them is bound to fail. These non-things are, in the true sense of the expression, ‘impossible to get hold of’. They are only open to decoding. Of course, as with old-style information, they also seem to be inscribed within things—in cathode-ray tubes, celluloid, micro-chips, laser beams. But although this sounds ‘ontological’, it is an ‘existential’ illusion. The material basis of new-style information is negligible from the existential point of view.” As Flusser sees it, this leads to the environment in which we have to find and keep our bearings becoming ever “softer, more nebulous, more ghostly.” As an art scholar trained on the works of Roland Barthes, I do not, of course, see an absolute difference between disparate processes of signification; meanings are produced when a number of signs are combined into new formations. The material form plays some part, but what ultimately counts is the ideological meaning. And yet precisely Flusser’s text shows clearly that the 0/1 machine has now become even more omnipresent: nowadays, all production and information processes are channelled through it, wholly new infrastructures have come into being, and the former unity of space and time has been completely destroyed, as Peter Weibel described in vivid terms in a lecture on the transformation of space and time: space was killed off long ago by the railways, he says; now the North Sea surges right up to our door, pictures from all over the world come flooding into our living rooms, and the landscape in between vanishes. Telecommunications initiate a new kind of communication; bodies remain in one place, whereas images can be reproduced at will: mobility and multiplication are now the order of the day. In the tele-society, the logic of distribution changes, Weibel says: it eliminates the power of place and instead brings us pictorial spaces that are detached from location and produce a ghostly simulation of distance. As a result, Weibel argues, the image acquires unprecedented power, images lose their historical, context-related character and become epistemic things, still objects but already signs, or perhaps still signs and already objects. So, it is at this moment of history that nostalgia for the object, for the aesthetic object, arises; it is precisely here and now that things are melting away, and their material substance, place, and presence are becoming nebulous. (That is why I see the actor-network theory or New Materialism as a symptom rather than anything else.)
Secondly: The Thing in Itself
But let us look for a moment at the concept of the Ding-an-sich, the thing in itself as a specific Western concept, inscribed into exhibition history.
We know to whom we owe the thing in itself—to the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Here, I will be looking again at Immanuel Kant, in the company of Terry Eagleton. I am turning to Eagleton because his interest is ultimately always focused on the living bodies of human beings. He investigates, from a post-Marxist perspective, what place “systems of thought” accord to subjects and objects, always bearing in mind the notion that ideological concepts also have material effects. Eagleton pays especial attention to those ideologies that hide behind a particular positioning of “aesthetics.” In this discussion, Kant plays a very significant role, if only because aesthetic theory accounts for such a huge part of his philosophical writings. Developing the ideas of Alexander Baumgarten, Kant devotes many hundreds of pages to a detailed discussion of aesthetics and the faculty of judgment.
The way in which, in Kant, the individual, or subject, defines itself as pre-eminent is seen by Eagleton as following inevitably from the political practice of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeois individual, as an active entrepreneur, has to be viewed as being self-determined and autonomous, in contrast to the worldview characteristic of the earlier, hierarchical state, in which a subject appears as determined by factors outside itself.
When, in Enlightenment philosophy, the subject is considered to be the master of the world, the world increasingly dissolves, or barely exists except in the experience of the subject. Thus, for example, Kant explains: “Time is therefore merely a subjective condition of our (human) intuition (which is always sensible, i.e., insofar as we are affected by objects), and in itself, outside the subject, is nothing.”
The fantasy of technical omnipotence conceals a nightmare: in appropriating nature, you risk eradicating it. In this sense, self-assertion, if taken to extremes, turns against itself. At present, we are directly experiencing this in increasing environmental pollution and global warming.
As Eagleton sees it, for the bourgeoisie, property becomes the true mark of the subject, and respect for property the central value of that order. This, in itself, partly explains the bourgeois fascination with the object (the thing); unthinkingly, perhaps unconsciously, this fascination supports that order.
The bourgeois subject (authenticated by nothing but itself) requires some Other to assure itself that its powers and properties are more than hallucinatory, that activities have meaning. At the same time, such otherness threatens the subject’s supposed sovereignty. According to Eagleton, this is the reason for the double nature of humanism: on the one hand, there is the mania for exerting power, on the other the depressing knowledge of being alone in the universe.
The subject is thus seen as being alive and active; productive activity secures objectivity (and objects), and thus connects the subject with the reality of the external world. If freedom is to flourish, if the subject is to extend its colonising sway over the world, this requires a certain level of knowledge. This being so, familiarity with and knowledge of other subjects is needed, which has led to study of the ‘human sciences’—psychology, sociology, history, etc. There is, however, some contradiction between the desire for knowledge and the subject’s claim to sovereignty: as Eagleton puts it, knowledge and freedom are in a curious sense antithetical. To put it differently, the subject’s illusory position of sovereignty is undermined by the recognition of its dependence, of being locked into systems, and ultimately also by the recognition that all subjectivity is at bottom a construct. Kant sees the subject as noumenal (outside the conceptual order), and the object as the ultimately inaccessible thing in itself.
For Kant, all cognition of others is purely phenomenal, since the secret springs of subjectivity are always inaccessible. “The subject is absolutely nothing whatsoever of an object—which is to say that it is a kind of nothing, that this vaunted liberty is also a vacancy.”
Aesthetic judgment is identified as an element that is capable of forming a bond between autonomous subjects: this is one sphere in which there can be a sense of community. According to Eagleton, the thing in itself is what the bourgeoisie—feeling alienated and fragmented by mutually isolating kinds of work—dreams of. The aesthetic object—but it alone—harbours an element of a utopian community. In aesthetic representation, we glimpse for a moment the possibility of a non-alienated object, one quite the reverse of a commodity. In another sense, however, this object, which acts as a point of exchange between subjects, can be read as a kind of spiritualised version of the commodity. At a time when art objects are enjoying an absolute boom, Eagleton’s observations appear startlingly prophetic.
Thirdly: Subject/Object Deconstructions
It is well known that Kant saw the aesthetic as existing in two states: the beautiful and the sublime. The beautiful affords support to the subject, while the sublime casts it down, conveying a feeling of its finiteness, decentring the subject. The sublime corresponds to a boundless totality that is beyond the scope of our feeble imagination. This is an interesting aspect of the aesthetic object. So, now, two factors undermine the subject’s self-certainty: on the one hand, the sublime, and on the other the striving for knowledge, which has the effect of showing the subject, as it reflects on itself, that its own position is, in a variety of ways, one of dependence.
The theoretical shoring up of a subject that had become questionable culminated in the writings of Sigmund Freud, Theodor Adorno, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Lacan—if I may make the point in this brief and highly over-simplified form. In art scholarship, the feminist revision of art historiography picked up on (and still picks up on today) precisely this deconstruction of the firmly established, sovereign position of the subject, which, as one might expect, also lays down fixed constructions of gender.
For the present discussion, I would like to recall Roland Barthes’s analysis of mythological constructions. A sign, consisting of mental image and sound, is arbitrarily formed: ein Baum, un arbre, a tree, these very different acoustic images conjure up more or less similar mental images. This very fact shows that an object in itself, or a thing in itself, does not exist outside of the term denoting it. I can identify a strange combination of wood and fabric as a chair only if I am already familiar with the concept of a chair. When several signs are combined, this produces a deliberately assembled meaning or, in Barthes’s terminology, a myth. He presents a variety of striking examples of such myth formations. The best-known of these examples is a Paris Match cover photograph of a black boy or very young man in uniform giving the French military salute. A myth de-historicises and de-contextualises: who is the boy, where did he live, what is his social and cultural background, what country is he from, did he go to school or receive military training, what ethnic group does he belong to—in short, what are the social and cultural conditions in which he and his salute are embedded? None of this is revealed. But the empty mould becomes filled with meaning—in this case, as Barthes sees it, willing acceptance of France’s colonial claim to power.
Interestingly, the artist Vincent Meessen, who curated the Belgian Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale, attempted, in his video investigation Vita Nova (2009), to find the boy and give him back his history. An ironic and yet wonderfully deconstructive appropriation of a theory. At the end of the film, attention is drawn to Barthes’s blind spot, his own post-colonial shadow, as it turns out that his grandfather, Gustave Binger, was once Governor of the Ivory Coast. This personal involvement is something that Barthes shies away from dealing with.
So, back to the thing/object, which even Bruno Latour (about whose actor-network theory I am very sceptical) has described in terms of a thing in a museum, according to Roger Fayet: “On the basis of the etymological relationship between the modern German Ding and the Old High German Thing (assembly, court), Latour only recognizes the object as being truly a thing once it is accepted into the circle of the Thing, that is to say, when it has become something spoken and negotiated about. Seen in this light, the museum is a locus of the ‘thingization’ of objects—or, to follow Valéry’s more cautious formulation, a place where ‘thingizations’ are offered.”
In Jacques Lacan’s writings, the thing appears in two states. Firstly, it appears as extant in the symbolic order. “Only what is integrated in the symbolic order ‘exists’ [...], since ‘there is no such thing as a prediscursive reality.’” Unlike Saussure and Barthes, however, he sees the relationship between the signified and the signifier not as fixed but as varying: the connection between acoustic image and mental image is subject to constant changes. (And the dissolution of this connection would be a psychotic state.) The second state of an object is the objet petit a, the object of desire which we seek in the other. The objet petit a is the object which can never be attained, which sets desire in motion; Lacan later calls it the “object-cause” of desire. The drives do not seek to attain it, but rather circle round it. The surplus represented by the objet petit a is surplus meaning and surplus enjoyment. “This concept is inspired by Marx’s concept of surplus value; a is the excess of jouissance which has no ‘use value’, but persists for the mere sake of enjoyment.” Thus, for Lacan, the object is a wish, a longing, an idea that can never actually be realised, but that keeps desire alive (in the relationship between subjects, that is to say, the desire for the other).
Fourthly: Things in the Museum—Their Framing by the Exhibiting Institution
So, let us turn to the thing, which exists only in a discourse, or only intersubjectively, and which is moreover taken and set in the specific frame of the exhibition situation. What is the significance of the “framing” of the thing by the museum, or, one might say, by the institution that represents Art? As is well known, Tony Bennett drew attention to the fact that one of the aims of the bourgeois museum was to initiate its visitors, especially members of the working class, to middle-class modes of behaviour. Visitors to museums were instructed not to spit, not to whistle, not to be noisy, and so on. Thus, it is clear that class-specific messages are an intrinsic part of the museum. Modernist glass buildings, which place the visitor-subject in situations affording an overview, also reinforce the subject’s illusion of occupying a self-confident (that is, bourgeois-entrepreneurial) position. At the same time, the subject is visible from all directions, and this in turn suggests that surveillance functions are being shifted to within the subject, so that, as has often been argued, contemporary citizens monitor themselves. The fact that a work of art is present in a museum or art institution means that that object has passed through various acts of consecration. To adopt Foucault’s argument, the discursive formation in a given instance—in this case the art academy, art market, art criticism, juries, the curatorial selection process, etc., or, correspondingly, anthropology and the authorities in that field—make use of complex mechanisms to determine which objects belong in a museum and which do not. When these objects then appear in the museum or art institution, they seem to be a “natural” part of it. “Natural” in this case means that by being placed on a pedestal or in a lighted glass cabinet, the objects are “ennobled.”
In contrast to this, a critical and democratic approach to museum work would aim to acknowledge openly the constraints and structures within which it operates, and to broaden and shift existing conditions implicit in museum work such as exclusions on racist and sexist grounds. There are some very successful examples of such an approach, some of which I would like to describe.
Michael Fehr vividly describes how, as the new director of the Osthaus Museum in Hagen, he attempted to transpose to the museum John Cage’s Music Score (which became famous as 4’33”) under the title SILENCE. At first, Fehr had hoped to work directly with Cage, but after Cage left Germany, Fehr unexpectedly found himself “without a supportive or protective artistic authority to back me up—unexpectedly in a kind of artistic mode [myself] [...].” For Fehr, this was the start of a programme that made reference to Hagen’s history and repeatedly took the town as its theme—not always to the delight of visitors and the press, as Fehr notes. Visitors were forced out of their comfort zone when they came to the museum, as the usual conventions were subverted. Fehr gives a graphic description: “The exhibition [SILENCE] showed a completely emptied museum: with the help of a workman I had, on the afternoon before the exhibition opened, removed everything that was in any way pictorial from the exhibition spaces, and we even dismantled the fountain and some lights that picked out details of the architecture.” The three-day exhibition provoked a mixed and sometimes vehement reaction, but the surprising thing was that the visitors now started talking about artworks and types of architecture. “What emerged from it all was not only that, even outside the sphere of music, John Cage’s 4’33’’ concept [...] is far more than a formal idea, which is how I too had regarded the piece up to then, but that SILENCE, viewed and deployed as an artistic strategy, can produce quite disparate ‘noises’ or ‘texts’, depending on the particular context—in this case the building’s history, which during the exhibition was practically oozing out of the walls, or was being projected on to the walls by the visitors.”
Fehr goes on to analyse, above all, the role of memory as a narrative (and, I imagine, divergent) event taking place at any given present moment, and also the curatorial strategies he uses to reveal different layers of historical occurrences. However, what I consider important here is a different aspect, which I believe can trigger processes that lead to insight: the element of surprise, of disorientation, which makes a person’s confidently held view begin to falter, as in the famous example of anamorphosis in the painting The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger 1533, which Lacan discusses. In the Lacanian example, the skull suddenly became visible when visitors turned back for a last look as they moved on, an unsettling experience that confronted them with the final, irrevocable splitting of the subject, namely their own death. This is, in Lacanian terminology, the irruption of the Real.
In an empty exhibition space, on the other hand, the visitor suddenly becomes visible as an observer, a voyeur, a constructed subject, a producer of narration, etc.  In a certain sense, we are likewise called into this unexpectedly empty space and caught there. The normal conventions for creating an exhibition and for visiting an exhibition are clearly shown to be a construct, to be the habitus associated with it. The gesture presumably also reveals the visitors to be a very homogeneous social group.
As a final example of an exhibition in which things began to talk, I would like to recall the famous exhibition Mining the Museum staged by the artist Fred Wilson at the Museum of the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore in 1992. In the first room of the exhibition stood a large silver globe bearing the inscription “Truth”; one of the most talked-about exhibits was a glass case containing finely chiselled silver goblets and jugs of the kind owned by the upper echelons of society; at the centre of the arrangement lay some black metal fetters for slaves. In a talk given at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Wilson describes in detail how, for instance, he made audiotape recordings in which he gave a voice to the previously unnamed black children shown in the historical paintings. He had the texts spoken by black children from the neighbourhood. A particularly moving and impressive example involves a picture showing, on the left, a black boy in a hunched posture, and on the right a white boy of about the same age standing upright and looking straight out of the picture. The black boy is turning his head to look up at the white boy; “Am I your brother? Am I your friend? Am I your pet?” a child asks on the audio track that Wilson produced to go with it. Wilson comments drily that he might quite possibly have been all three.
A reduced version of the exhibition was shown long; the pram in which a Ku Klux Klan hood had been laid created an enormous stir. The art education staff telephoned Wilson with a question: a school class was coming to the exhibition, and some of the children were Ku Klux Klan members; how should they deal with this? Just don’t give them my phone number, Wilson joked. Wilson allowed the things to speak for themselves, but not, in the usual way, by elevating while decontextualizing them; instead he showed the process by which something becomes a museum object, and gave back to the things their context, their history, the means by which they were effective and their actual effects. He connected the things with their usefulness and those who benefited from their use; he gave the subjects their voices back.
To return to the beginning of my argument: it is reactionary, as Douglas Crimp has declared, when people enthuse about the abstract beauty of a helicopter, and progressive when questions are asked about its use, its effects, how those effects are achieved, and who the beneficiaries are. In the case of the beautiful, insect-like helicopter at MoMA described by an enthusiastic critic, Crimp deconstructed this style of presentation and such uncritical interpretation by pointing out that exactly this type of helicopter had been deployed in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras: “The hard facts are that Bell helicopters are manufactured by the Fort Worth corporation Textron, a major U.S. defense contractor, which supplies the Bell and Huey model helicopters used against the civilian populations of El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. But because the contemporary art of exhibition has taught us to distinguish between the political and the aesthetic, a New York Times editorial entitled 'Marvelous MOMA' was able to say of MOMA’s proud new object: 'A helicopter, suspended from the ceiling, hovers over an escalator in the Museum of Modern Art [...]. The chopper is bright green, bug-eyed and beautiful. We know that it is beautiful because MOMA showed us the way to look at the 20th century.”
To come back to the beginning, the problem about a phantasmatic agency ascribed to objects (be that as New Materialism or as actor-network theory) is the blurring of structural violence. We as artists, curators, and theorists have to ask in which contexts do objects produce which meaning. And who is the actor in this constellation. Who is producing meaning, and who is the benefactor of a situation. The longing for materiality, for an object one could grasp, is due to the fact that through the overpowering mass of digital images, and by the withdrawal of the unquestionable presence of objects, and of other subjects, we all feel thrown into a shadowy co-habitation in time and space. This will go on, with or without a virus, for quite some time. So, we must be awake and discuss what images, artwork, exhibitions are putting forward. To do this needs words, needs curating, needs art: therefore, I would like to recommend this statement by Roland Barthes, as a starting point:
“Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.”
English translation by Judith Rosenthal
Dorothee Richter, "(Un)Dinge, oder warum die Sehnsucht nach dem Ding immer reaktionär ist," in Interdisziplinäres Ausstellen, eds. Sabine Fauland, Österreichischer Museumsbund, (Vienna: 2016), 8-15. ISSN 1015-6720 (slightly modified version for this publication).
Dorothee Richter is Professor in Contemporary Curating at the University of Reading, UK, and head of the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, CAS/ MAS Curating at the Zurich University of the Arts, Switzerland; She is director of the PhD in Practice in Curating Programme, a cooperation of the Zurich University of the Arts and the University of Reading. Richter has worked extensively as a curator: she was initiator of Curating Degree Zero Archive, Curator of Kuenstlerhaus Bremen, at which she curated different symposia on feminist issues in contemporary arts and an archive on feminist practices, Materialien/Materials; recently she directed, together with Ronald Kolb, a film on Fluxus: Flux Us Now, Fluxus Explored with a Camera.
 Peter Weibel, “Iconic Turn, Ortlosigkeit und Bilderfülle,” from 46:07, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5lIpNADoqYM, accessed on 27 Dec. 2015.
 Katarina Gregos, “Raising the Phantoms of Empire: Post-Colonial Discourse in Recent Artists’ Films,” accessed on 27 Dec. 2015, http://moussemagazine.it/articolo.mm?id=529.
“Vincent Meessen’s Vita Nova (2009) takes as its point of departure a cover photo from a 1955 issue of the French magazine Paris Match, in which a black child soldier is depicted making a military salute. The caption reads: ‘The nights of the army. Little Diouf has come from Ouagadougou with his comrades, children reared by the A.O.F. army, to open the fantastic spectacle that the French Army presents this week at the Palais des Sports’. The artist embarks on a search for Diouf, the child soldier who is depicted, weaving an elaborate narrative that brings together a number of phantoms from the colonial past, and focusing on the figure of Roland Barthes—who wrote a critical text about this particular image. Historical fact, reality, artistic interpretation, and imagination are conflated, and the spectator is invited to piece together the fragments of the story, as timeframes become dislocated and chronologically disconnected. Drawing on a variety of media and archival material, as well as his own footage, Meessen creates a parallel, updated story in which a new character is born (Vita Nova) and with him, a new ‘narrative. The film also brings to life the personal story of Roland Barthes, who is revisited by the phantom of post-colonialism, and resurrected in a black body. By the end of the film, it turns out that Barthes suppressed his own personal history; we discover that his grandfather, Gustave Binger, was the first governor of Côte d’Ivoire, thus implicating Barthes in the very narratives he wished to critique. Vita Nova reflects on the artifice involved in historiographical discourse, using the fiction of ‘realism’ and the experience of archives to arrive at a distinctive form of ‘factual fiction’.”
 Michael Fehr, “Text und Kontext. Die Entwicklung eines Museums aus dem Kontext seiner Geschichte”, in Open Box: Künstlerische und wissenschaftliche Reflexionen des Museumbegriffs (Cologne: Wienand, 1998), 19.
 Lacan describes the effect of anamorphosis as follows: “It is, in short, an obvious way, no doubt an exceptional one, [...] of showing us that, as subjects, we are literally called into the picture, and represented here as caught.” Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Penguin, 1979), 92.
 Elisabeth Ginsberg on Fred Wilson’s exhibition project, Mining the Museum, April 3, 1992 – February 28, 1993: “For instance, in the first room of the exhibit, the audience was confronted with a silver globe—an advertising industry award given at clubs in the first half of the century—bearing the single word ‘Truth’. The trophy was flanked by, on the one side, a trio of portrait busts of prominent white men and, on the other side, three empty black pedestals. The busts were of Napoleon, Henry Clay, and Andrew Jackson. None of these worthies had ever lived in Maryland; they exemplified those deemed deserving of sculptural representation and subsequent museum acquisition. The empty busts were labeled Harriet Tubman, Benjamin Banneker, and Frederick Douglass, three important African-American Marylanders who were overlooked by the ostensibly ‘local’ institution.” See http://beautifultrouble.org/case/mining-the-museum/, accessed on 11 Jan. 2016.
 Fred Wilson speaking at the Victoria and Albert Museum, “A Change of Heart—Fred Wilson’s Impact on Museums”, https://vimeo.com/11838838, accessed on 11 Jan. 2016.
The curator of The Contemporary referred to by Fred Wilson was Lisa Corrin; the founding director of The Contemporary was George Ciscle.