U.S. Consulate Talk at the American Space


This morning I gave a talk, organized by the U.S. Consulate in Barcelona, to a group of design students from EASD Deià (Escola d'Art i Superior de Disseny. The talk was presented at the American Space BCN in the Biblioteca Ignasi Iglésias-Can Fabra, beside the Fabri i Coats art center in the Sant Andreu neighborhood.


Aquest matí plujós l’hem passat a l’American Space de la Biblioteca Ignasi Iglésias-Can Fabra en companyia de l’artista estatunidenc Peter Freund, que ha reflexionat sobre les imatges en l’era digital (creació, manipulació i ètica) amb estudiants de batxillerat artístic del Deià Disseny. Aquesta activitat forma part del nostre programa escolar, Connect-US 🇺🇸.


The idea of the talk was to give some idea of how digital tools, which - as we know - tend to serve the lie (Fig. 1), can be (re)directed in the service of truth. Here we had to do a bit careful distinguishing of fact from truth and for a model of an art practice landed on the recontextualizing twists of détournement. In this context, I discussed the process of image recoding and glitching and then shared a gallery of recent work by my students in the U.S. (Fig. 2). After the presentation, several of the students from this Barcelona design school - some quite animated - came up to chat and shared perspectives on the question of art, to my delight, that were a fairly far cry from traditionally restrictive ideas of design. One student, for example, rejected the exclusively decorative and communicative use of design. Another talked excitedly about fashion, its relation to contemporary art, and the importance of critical research.

Fig. 1 A digital tool, no better or worse than another

Fig. 1 A digital tool, no better or worse than another


Fig 2. Detail from  student web gallery .

Fig 2. Detail from student web gallery.

Fig. 3 U.S. Consulate tweet.

Fig. 3 U.S. Consulate tweet.


A Lecture at the Autonomous University of Barcelona

Left: René Magritte,  The Treachery of Images  (1929). Right: René Magritte,  The Key of Dreams  (1930). The problem of image and word.

Left: René Magritte, The Treachery of Images (1929). Right: René Magritte, The Key of Dreams (1930). The problem of image and word.

Left: Marcel Broodthaers,  The Clean Room  (1975). Right: Luis Camnitzer,  The Living Room  (1969). Resonating installations: texts presented as displacements of images

Left: Marcel Broodthaers, The Clean Room (1975). Right: Luis Camnitzer, The Living Room (1969). Resonating installations: texts presented as displacements of images

Today I ventured out for the first time to the Autonomous University of Barcelona (La Autónoma) to lecture for the Departament de Filologia Anglesa (Department of English Studies). Thanks go to Prof. Sara Martín Alegre for the invitation! So many years after jumping the fence from the literary field into the pasture of art, it was a pleasure to talk to literature folks about the image-word problem, its relation to disciplinary balkanization, and how art practices can intervene into what is at stake.

Ut Pictura Poesis

Initially I set out to put the topic in the context of two well-known traditions that prescribe how images and words should behave together. The first, ut pictura poesis, was a familiar framework for me from having studied William Blake with a bit of care years ago for my doctoral dissertation. It was WJT Mitchell’s book on Blake that pointed to this tradition while distinguishing Blake’s image-word dialectics within it. Ut pictura poesis, which by simple translation means “as in a painting, so also in a poem,” names a long-standing dogma dating back at least to Horace that seeks to establish literature and visual art on equal footing as “sister arts.” In his Ars Poetica, Horace aimed to elevate the artistic status of poetry to what painting enjoyed in his day. Plutarch attributed the original sentiment to the ancient Greek lyric poet Simonides of Keos who described painting as mute poetry and poetry as speaking picture. Centuries later, in his Laocoon: An Essay upon the Limits of Poetry and Painting (1766), the German philosopher Lessing extended the disciplinary parallelism, for better or worse, by identifying the powers of image and word with the dimensions of space and time, respectively, and further with the feminine and the masculine. One can easily guess the ideological upshot of such a principle of “separate but equal” mediums: the superiority of text over image.


Second, the tradition of ekphrasis negotiates the relationship of picture and word specifically by stressing the lavish power of language to describe and reinvent the image. Examples range from the Imagines of Philostratus of Lemnos (c. 190 – c. 230 AD) to Walter Pater’s description (1893) of Da Vinci’s La Gioconda (Mona Lisa) and Walter Benjamin’s meditation (1920) on Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus in “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”

From Blake to Broodthaers and Beyond

William Blake,  The Book of Urizen  (1794)

William Blake, The Book of Urizen (1794)

Partly following Mitchell, I discussed William Blake as a curious synthesis of these apparently opposite traditions. In Blake, the picture depicts the text but it also reflects the status of the text as text. For example, in The Book of Urizen, the central margin of the poetic text gets aligned with the spine of the depicted book, which is in turn aligned with the division of the Mosaic tablets. In the end, the series of alignments points back to the book in your hands. The recursion in Urizen goes further with the iterative essence of his book itself, for which Blake produced multiple variant versions. By the same token, while the words on the page express the poetic narrative, at certain points the text’s script drifts off into visual ornaments that challenge a strict separation of word and picture.

In my talk, I emphasized that the word-image relationship presents a productive impasse (based on an internal structural dynamic of surplus and lack) that leads from Blake’s Urizen to Rene Magritte’s pipes and Key of Dreams and eventually to Robert Rauschenberg’s Portrait of Iris Clert, Jenny Holzer’s Projections, and Marcel Broodthaers’ The Clean Room. From this point, I was able to demonstrate a continuous movement from my doctoral project, which started from the endeavor to demonstrate the (structural) impossibility of language, to my current work, Lost Grids.

Discussion of Art Criticism

Finally, I was asked to talk about my teaching, particularly the writing of art criticism, and the issue of professionalizing student writers. It’s a fair and useful question, even if the focus of my art criticism course is not the professionalization of writers per se. I laid down a few features of my curriculum and discussed the booklet of student writings (pdf below) we produced last Spring before I left on sabbatical.

art[crit     booklet   of student writings, Saint Mary’s College of California, Spring 2018

art[crit booklet of student writings, Saint Mary’s College of California, Spring 2018


A Few Features of My Art Criticism Course:

• Intensive study of art theory + criticism
The students begin the course by studying, reporting on, and discussing in a seminar forum a sampling of key twentieth-century voices in the discipline. These voices range from Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Michael Fried, and Leo Steinberg to Joseph Kosuth, Rosalind Krauss, Lucy Lippard, Douglas Crimp, among others. During the second half of the course, the students turn to selected essays and interviews currently published in major journals on contemporary art: Artforum, Art Monthly, Bidoun, Bomb, e-flux, Frieze, Modern Painters, Mousse, and SFAQ, to name a few. To guide the study of both sets of readings, small teams of three students are assembled to distill each text’s basic argument and to stage and facilitate a class discussion with relevant background information and interpretive questions. 

• Intertextuality + discussion
Beyond an engagement with the main argument of each text, the classroom discussions give special attention to the intertextual nature of these writings and to the cross-fertilizing yet often contentious dialogue between art and art criticism implied by each text. At this level, the ongoing classroom conversation that takes place over the fourteen weeks of the semester aims to construct a flexible network of themes, ideas, vocabularies, and frameworks that can distinguish how each individual piece of art criticism speaks within a shifting cultural exchange on art and its contemporary relevance. 

• Weekly group site visits
To complement their traditional academic study of art criticism, the students venture out in study groups every week to Bay Area art galleries, museums, and other cultural centers to research the organizational mission, history, and design of these exhibit venues while highlighting one exhibit or artist within the venue’s current programming. The study groups then meet to prepare a presentation of their field work, which they deliver in a subsequent class session with the aim of prompting discussion and reflection back on the ongoing conversation about course readings. 

• Writing craft
Throughout the semester, the students focus attention on the craft of writing art criticism guided by the process of group critique and by their reading of Gilda Williams’ text, How to Write About Contemporary Art. To materialize their process, students submit weekly entries from a journal notebook they keep throughout the term, in which they enter art-critical drafts, notes and reflections on class discussions and readings, observations on art and art venues, and experiments with ideas, sketches, and writing. For the term each student submits two finished works of art criticism that are workshopped extensively through individual and group peer critiques. These works are submitted for consideration to be published in the annual art[crit student journal. The best works are submitted for campus-wide writing competition.

• Internships
Following each term interested students seek internships with arts organizations, working in the curatorial and publications departments. Students are encouraged to start blogs on contemporary art and to develop relationships with local galleries and museums.


Entrance to the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB)

Entrance to the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB)

Open space inside UAB

Open space inside UAB

Open plaza at UAB

Open plaza at UAB

The Space of Education

It was my first time to the Autonomous University (UAB). The beautiful campus, situated outside Barcelona city proper, reminded me of the campus building projects that took place in the US in response to the student unrest of the 1950s and ‘60s. These projects aimed to provide a “safe space” for intellectual inquiry – safe, that is, from any immediate contact and cross-pollinating confluences with urban impulses. UAB is known as a politically active campus (see entrance photo above), while the distance from Barcelona’s city center is unmistakable.

Following my talk, I tried in vain to locate Ed Powell’s study of the University at Buffalo’s architectural project in which the university, which had ample space to expand near its main campus, moved the entire humanities division twenty or so miles out into the countryside (Amherst NY) and established a new campus away from the main campus that houses the scientific disciplines. Friends used to highlight the neutralizing effect of isolating the discourses of scientific and humanistic inquiry in the midst of the expanding military industrial complex. I also recalled two of the construction projects in Oakland’s Peralta Community College system (Merritt and Laney in particular), where campuses were built to withstand or subvert riots. A few Barcelona friends have suggested that the history of the Autonomous universities in Spain resonates with the American equivalents.

Of course such projects recall Michel Foucault’s description of disciplinary architectures. If Deleuze’s reassessment in his 1992 “Postscript” is valid – that contemporary society represents a shift from “disciplinary” to “control” surveillance, from the regulation of enclosure to a regulation of openness, from a localized to a distributed and networked circulation, even from an economy of production to an experience and sharing economy – how do these “architectures” function? As outmoded projects that languish in contemporary irrelevance? Or as memorials and ruins whose very irrelevance physically archives while simultaneously inspiring the real possibility of political change?


4|4 (4bar4): New Work by Werner Thöni

Four paintings, four seats (aka 4|4): new work by Werner Thöni

The booklet for Werner Thöni’s new body of work, 4|4, came back from the printer today. I love the work and was delighted when Werner asked me to pen his booklet introduction. Writing this short essay was a great opportunity to clarify and develop what interests me about his paintings and how his work intersects with questions – such as the paradoxical function of transparency and obscurity – related to my own current project. The full text of my introduction, accompanied by photography from the booklet, is reproduced below.

Cover of 4|4 booklet


Werner Thöni’s 4|4 (4 bar 4)

The driving aesthetic of Werner Thöni’s new work, 4|4 (“4 bar 4”), inverts the celebrated dictum of fellow Swiss artist Paul Klee, “Art does not reproduce the visible; it makes visible.” Klee’s modernism champions the revelatory power of visual art. Thöni by contrast cuts an expressive path that unifies visible reproduction with its apparent opposite, material concealment.

Four 130-centimeter by 130-centimeter Prussian blue paintings stand directly opposite four prepared, cube-shaped benches upholstered with canvas, also painted Prussian blue. The four painting/bench pairings are marked with a small set of numbers and affixed with sales-like tags which link the wall canvases to their corresponding seats and each pair to the others through a logic of series. The serial logic is sewn through this body of work as a concatenation of integers scattered in a specific pattern across these painted surfaces: 13-16, 26-29, 43-46, and 68-71. Identically positioned in each painting/bench coupling, the four number clusters enter into a larger implied sequence – running from 0 to 71 (perhaps beyond) – in which the spaces between the four pieces convey ellipses of missing numbers.

A seat, a painting

The composition of each painting presents a fundamentally identical geometry that suggests the convention of a three-view plan for building and assembly instructions. Do the paintings hint at plans for the assembly of the benches? Within the repeating geometry, the detailed markings vary, like the numbers and tags, from piece to piece. At first, the sketched views register as figures against a deep blue background; however, closer inspection reveals that these figures are in fact the background over which the blue has been superimposed as mask.

Werner Thöni does not object to explanations of his densely conceived canvases but is quietly indifferent to volunteering any. Is it to give the viewer a greater role in the work? After all, by coupling the paintings with seats, he materially integrates into the work an invitation to the viewer to sit and have a look. Introversion may be the birthright of every artist, but Thöni’s is engaged with a broader problematic animating his project.

Another seat, another painting

4|4 was inspired by a tragic event from 2015 that received widespread international attention. The work pays tribute to 71 migrants and refugees from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan who died while locked inside a truck traveling on an Austrian motorway towards Germany. This final cause of Thöni’s project remains decidedly absent from the visible surface of the work. Beyond the number sequence, which correlates with the tragic death count, Thöni has otherwise created the work out of an intricate network of contingent, even incidental associations he developed while contemplating the tragedy over time.

The project springs from an impulse that is neither directly empathic nor edifying. Instead it opens up a context for the artist to generate free associations that redirect and refract the public light shone on the tragedy. The associative elements – including the grid and cube (building blocks of design); title labels cited from a 2017 MoCA exhibition, “Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A.” (statements of desire); IKEA patterns (the hope of a prefabricated life); and Prussian blue (a pigment produced by oxidation, exposure to oxygen) – are transmuted by the artistic process. Some are entirely covered over with the Prussian blue, leaving only hints of an underlying grid, the ragged suggestion of a cube, markings, scribbles, and indeterminate sketches of happenstance objects. And yet all these contingent details are framed within the precise, repeating visual structure and beautiful imposing blue.

A painting (detail)

Contemporary art has long endeavored to burst the unbudgeable nexus between revelation and visibility – between truth and the evidential. The seriality, maskings, and geometries position 4|4 within a particular lineage: Sol Lewitt’s incomplete cubes, the subtractive aesthetics of Gordon Matta Clark and Doris Salcedo, the impenetrable surfacing and memorialist markings of Antoni Tàpies. The work’s installation aspect brings the viewer into the realm of Duchamp’s “reciprocal ready-made,” where by “using a Rembrandt as an ironing board,” an artwork is returned problematically to the status of everyday object. The viewer of 4|4 must confront the awkward prospect of physically trespassing on the art when deciding whether to take a seat. What might this mean that I sit down on the very object depicted in the abstract plan on the wall in front of me?

Four seats (details)

The root of Werner Thöni’s current work presents an ethical withdrawal. From the quotidian to the political, the contemporary fetish of transparency expresses the hopeless utopianism of an administrative discourse. When communication is assessed according to its clarity – based in evidence and explanation as an ingratiating form of intellectual friendliness – any excesses of ornament, allusion, or indirection appear as hostile obfuscation. The proliferation of documentary exposés that showcase the world’s tremendous suffering through lavish photographic and testimonial evidence begins to overlap with the endless advertised promises of commodities and markets to remedy the woes of the day. The unmistakable clarity of message risks obscuring the stakes of enjoyment for those who survive even from a well-informed distance.

A painting (detail)

As equitable as its claims may be, the current ethic of transparency belies the bad faith of every self-righteous complaint against obscurantism. Painting has always been about covering up, hiding, or obscuring the last daub of paint, a flawed rendering, the void of the canvas. Werner Thöni’s paintings take obscurantism into their artistic embrace and propose a form of tribute that withdraws from a tragic event into the precise space of its absence. The artist makes no claim to have a relation to the reported victims but rather stipulates personal associations out of the very lack of relationship. Instead of particularizing the universally-demonstrable tragedy, the essential gesture of 4|4 is to universalize the always yet-to-be-distinguished particularity of such loss. In other words, to face a public tragedy truly one must confront one’s own radical distance from the event. The artist’s quiet indifference to volunteering explanations in this case represents neither a coyness nor a refusal but rather an aesthetic that seeks the basis for authentic expression.

Peter Freund
Barcelona, 2019




New Article on the Use of Conceptual Machines in Art


Today I concluded my collaborative writing with artists Eloi Puig and Vitor Magalhães. The invitation to participate came from Eloi Puig, artist and professor who chairs the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Barcelona. Vitor Magalhães is an artist, writer, and professor with the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Medeira (Portugal).

Our article, entitled “Il n’y a pas de rapport sémiotique: 3 lecturas discontinuas” (“There is no semiotic relation: 3 discontinuous readings”), explores the idea and use of conceptual machines. These machines are designed to consume and reorganize the form and possible meanings of images and texts drawn from the cultural archive. In our writing, we each lay out a theoretical framework and discuss the background and aims of our individual work in this area. The article will be published later this year in a bilingual collection of artist texts. An exhibition will coincide with the book release.

Inspired by the permutational writings of Oulipo, Barcelona artist Eloi Puig’s ongoing Torvix project utilizes an algorithm he has designed for intervening into and transforming existing film materials. The algorithm, applicable to any chunk of time-based media, embodies an intricate set of rules for analyzing and creating transformations in the sequence of the materials selected for the purpose. The original film sequences must contain a spoken text, which the artist transcribes into a written document to be used in the transformational process and which the operation also lays down word by word in subtitles. The algorithm begins by analyzing the duration of the selected film sequence, divides it into 26 equal units (corresponding to the number of letters in the alphabet), and then performs a series of re-edits of the footage based on the correlations in the rule-set between the occurence of letters, punctuation, line breaks etc in the transcribed vocal track and a specific type of transformation (increase/decrease speed, run in reverse, insert black frame, and so forth). More information about Eloi Puig’s project can be found at Torvix.

Portuguese artist Vitor Magalhães has since 2010 been working with a “transnarrative linguistic-visual device” that he has titled La Máquina de M (The Machine of M). The core of the project is a mechanism by which variant combinations are produced from a collection of cultural materials bearing a name that starts with the letter M, or in a few cases an upside down M, that is, a W. Inspired by the fifth of Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, “Multiplicity,” Vitor’s project is a kind of machine for outputting combinations and recombinations of words and pictures. One manifested result, included in an online group show, presented a video diptych of images and words unfolding a series of associations expressed through the parallax view between two juxtaposed screens. This image-text work of expanded montage is organized according to “a principle of friction, distancing or deviations.” A second version, now in preparation, will present a video installation accompanied by prints, diagrams, text and other materials. More information about Vitor Magalhães’ project can be found at La Máquina de M.

Finally, my current project, Lost Grids, which I began in 2017, puts forward an apparatus for manufacturing and juxtaposing two incommensurate planes: a plane of associations forged by citing and pairing pictures and texts from the cultural archive and a plane of corresponding visual surfaces produced by intermixing these citations through a creative misuse of digital code. The latter, which take the form of multi-colored grids, are formed by selecting texts from the plane of associations and by then entering the language of the texts directly into the underlying digital code-bed of the images. The grids are ultimately created from a magnification of the specific visual glitches that result from this technical intervention. In 2019, the work in progress was printed and exhibited as two separate and parallel series (of grids and image-text networks) along opposite walls of a gallery in order to emphasize the interval and incommensurability between the ornamental forms and their corresponding conceptual contents. More information about my project can be found at Lost Grids.

[Image from the unpublished manuscript]

[Image from the unpublished manuscript]


Research Residency at MACBA CED

Photo of MACBA from MACBA CED

Photo of MACBA from MACBA CED


Today I concluded my Fall/Winter residency at the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art Research Center (MACBA CED), which offered a great support for the research related to my Lost Grids project. The residency provided a work space with desk and computer; extensive research support from the MACBA CED library staff; access to the library and archive collections, which have excellent resources related to contemporary and conceptual art; and finally a “friend pass” to the Museum.


The MACBA CED staff were of tremendous help; big thanks to Noemi Mases, who was always suggesting new materials for research from my vaguest of inquiries! Early on, I asked Andrea Ferraris if she could track down the obscure metagraph, “The Death of J.H.,” by Guy Debord referenced in his and Gil Wolman’s A User’s Guide to Détournement in which “125 classified ads of bars-for-sale express a suicide more strikingly than the newspaper articles that recount it.” For years I’d begun assuming that the work was a creative fiction, that it never actually existed outside a conceptual dream. Many weeks after my inquiry, at the end of her quiet persistence, Andrea showed up at my desk with two copies of the artwork!

In addition to the research experience, I enjoyed interactions with the other resident artists, including Joan Morey and Blanca Garcia, who had exhibitions I was able to attend during our overlapping time at MACBA.

MACBA tweet

MACBA tweet


Project Blurb:

Peter Freund, Lost Grids
Inspired by the incommensurability of surface and depth, Peter Freund generates digital materials by hacking the underlying code of iconic photography with the use of poetic, critical and quotidian texts. His project will ultimately result in a set of variegated grid prints that harness the impulses of conceptual art in exploring the history and politics of the grid, from the renaissance perspective machine and the geometrical configurations of cartography, architecture and design to the abstract, gridded constructions of modern and contemporary art and the pixel system undergirding the raster image. The radical ornamentalism of Freund’s prints presents an interventionist strategy in a politics of enjoyment.