Papermaking- a Means to Resist the Spectacle?(PhD proposal summary)


In his seminal work, ‘Society of The Spectacle’[1],  Situationism’s  de facto leader Guy Debord set out to write a text to detail and critique what he saw as our increasingly atomising, alienating  and representation based world. The book is critical of both the mass media and capitalism; that instead of real engagement, the dominance of the spectacle produces cultural homogenisation and the spectacularisation of western society. In short, the’ Society of the Spectacle’ produces spectatorship instead of participation.

The idea that papermaking can be a means to resist the alienating and dumbing- down potential of the ‘Spectacle’ is an argument that needs to take into account papermaking’s inherent ‘guilt’ in its role as a technology. Throughout history paper allowed for the accommodation of the spectacle. It was a prime canvas for the vulgar ‘word’. We can think of The Bible. Propaganda posters. Philosophy, even. Is the blank sheet of paper merely the out dated predecessor to the screen?  

The ‘resistance’ to the spectacle that papermaking proposes relies on the many assets of paper as art which create an opposition against the sensationalist tendencies of the Spectacle: the hand craft vs. the mass produced, analogue vs. digital, material vs. Immaterial, representation vs. actual.  In short, paper’s quietude works to create a potential for critical reflection- in opposition to the spectacle’s tendency toward passivity- within the viewer.

Papermaking  can seem at first glance to be out of step with a critically engaged contemporary practice; one of the aims of this practice is to reduce the stigma toward papermaking, turning the preconceptions of a hand- based, craft activity into something which can legitimately and unapologetically claim to add to the diversity of 21st century visual art practice.

However, there are many questions and theoretical stumbling blocks to the realisation of this ideal that must be negotiated:

-Firstly, how can an art practice construct a critical standpoint on the atomisation of our increasingly digitised, ‘connected’, screen saturated world, without being regressive i.e still working within the progressive thrust of modernity, and embracing the legacy of the avant-garde?

-How may this act of resistance formulate itself as a progressive, critical and conceptual tool rather than a regressive form of fine art practice? Debord favoured the idea of detournement[2] to counter act the spectacle, however, this is far removed from the potential of papermaking; papermaking may be utilised to counter act the spectacular on the grounds of creating a space for contemplating and critical thinking in the viewer. In what way can this be effective? Has our normalisation to the screen based spectacle changed how we even view the act of seeing? For example, have our viewing tendencies become normalised to the spectacle?

-The Spectacle engenders Passivity rather than participation. Why is this so? What is the difference between a screen based ‘spectacular’ version of paper (think a Word document) and the ‘actual’ paper? To what extent can paper be appropriated into the spectacle?

The three research questions therefore:

–        On what conditions can a ‘resistant’ practice utilising paper be considered progressive not regressive, and therefore, in the spirit of modernity? Can a political thrust redeem this?

–        What is paper doing as a form of ‘technology’? How does paper as art work toward participation rather than passivity?

–        Can quietude act as a means of involving the ‘masses’ through an invite to contemplation in a world where the screen based spectacle is so prevalent? In the 21st century,  the Spectacle is naturalised and almost expected- perhaps even in certain forms of contemporary art – so how are the audience expected to react to an invite for critical contemplation? To what, extent, therefore, has the viewing experience of audiences been normalised by the spectacle, and if this is the case, how can paper work to  ‘re-train’ thinking processes into one which desires critical engagement.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that so many conceptually engaged artist of the late 21st century began to use paper as an end in itself[3]. It seems entirely plausible to suggest a Foucauldian reading of this: that papermaking is the ‘resistance’ to the power of the screen based, digital world that saturates our visual culture.

Conceptually, my work has dealt with the idea of political resistance: that through an engagement between artist and audience, through the display or making public of an art work, an engagement may happen which invites the viewer to begin a critical process; that art may become the ‘site’ of an event for the subject. In short, art can challenge us to re-think our relationship with the world; to challenge the viewer into to re-imagining that which is presented as something that should be taken for granted.

It was on this criteria of engagement that I investigated the idea of how art may become a ‘site of resistance’: that through art we may invent, experiment with and develop new ways to protest and resist against normative thinking prevalent and pervasive in all aspects of a society subsumed under capitalism.

This practice manifested itself visually in a series of paper based art works. For months prior to my degree I collected fast food packaging, banking application forms and promotional material. These were ‘resisted’ by being pulped; being remade into books or large blank sheets of paper. It is an act of resistance through re-appropriation.

Blank paper- and the audience’s confrontation with its void- allows for a ‘space’ of potential critical introspection, in opposition to the Spectacle’s desire for passivity from its audience. Of course, paper as a thing is not completely innocent in its relationship to the spectacle- it is a blank field ready to be vulgarised and ‘spectacularised’ as a  means of technology to carry the ‘word’. It is this tension, this potential for defeat, that paper as art seeks to avoid. By virtue of being blank, this ‘void’ allows for an autonomous space of critical reflection otherwise difficult to find in a contemporary ‘spectacularied’ world. This potential space is where we may find our site of resistance within art. 

Paper’s quietude works to create a potential for critical reflection- in opposition to the spectacle’s tendency toward passivity- within the viewer.

[1] Debord, Guy, ‘The Society of the Spectacle’, Zone Books, London, 9th edition, 2006,

[2] Detournement is a process of out spectacularising the spectacle; the effect is intended to interrupt the workings of the spectacle drawing attend to its dominance in our de-politicised world and therefore disrupting its easy accomodation into our everyday reality.

[3] Artists as diverse as Ed Ruscha, John Cage and Joseph Beuys have all utilised paper as an end in itself.

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