Originally published as the introduction to the catalogue for Inappropriate Appropriation, a group exhibition curated by JP Huckins at The Littman Gallery in 2012.
In the America’s Next Top Model All Stars episode Exploring Greece, the girls had a photoshoot where they were to embody the spirit of the Greek goddesses, each given an ancient Olympic sport to represent in a high fashion climate. Allison Harvard modeled as a discus thrower, trading in the more traditional heavy disk for a small black clutch. Having no experience with the official sport, she tried to embody the fluid aspect of the practice. It was awkward and stilted to start, but when coached to reconnect with her ‘brand’ and remember her angles, her slender form contorted to high fashion posture.
As a stylistic gesture, ‘appropriation’ is a method of reorganization - a movement. It is distinguished from similar notions, such as arrangement, recomposition, bricolage and others for its relationship to property. For many, it connotes a casual degree of theft. It comes from the Latin verb appropriare, 'to make one's own,' - further segmented as ad, meaning 'to' as in ‘towards’, and proprius, 'one’s own, permanent, special, peculiar’.1 Beyond influence, what the concept of appropriation stresses, above all, is the accumulation of power by way of another’s property.
This idea was important for a young Marx concerned with the alienation of the worker. In the assembly line, the worker performs a tiny action as part of a larger system. She does so without a direct connection to the end product, with no sense of its value and therefore, no sense of her own value as it becomes further embedded into the shadowy production framework. From Marx, “The product of labour is labour which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labour. Labour's realisation is its objectification ... this realisation of labour appears as a loss of realisation for the workers; objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation... so much does the appropriation of the object appear as estrangement, the more objects a worker produces, the less he can possess.” He furthers, “the more the worker, by means of his labour, appropriates the external world, the more he deprives himself of the means of life.”2
But what’s the use of looking at Marx today, really. The factory system has become overshadowed by the technocognitive labour we now undertake on a daily basis. Where it would only take a few hours to train the factory worker’s replacement, replacing the creative labourer is near impossible without a few years of schooling and a coaching in all the implicit knowledge she’d garnered from years in the field. Typing away at the same screens and looking at the same Wikipedia articles, we recombine (or in other words, appropriate) bits and pieces of our labour in the form of information. With the so-called ‘object’ of capital almost vacant from the process, the ‘appropriation’ undertaken by the worker and her estrangement collapse into the same motion. When appropriation is all we know, it is evidence that the alienating force of capitalism has triumphed over the vital life force of humanity and the world around us. Appropriately, it has been stolen and we are none the wiser.
It would seem that all is lost. Capitalism appears to have destroyed the conditions of recomposition, disallowing the process of subjectivation to take place. This is the way in which our society has lost its zest. We’ve lost trust in it and instead watch ANTM hoping that Allison will find a way to pose so that she doesn’t lose her job. What if Allison, though, were less concerned with staying ‘on-brand’, and developed a sense of attunement with her environment that allowed the precious subjective capacity of the individual to shine through? Well, with appropriations abound the idea of subjectivity seems too poetic, sappy, or hippy-dippy. Allison is, at the end of the day, still obligated to her contract with the network. It would appear that she lacks the agency to do otherwise.
By pushing appropriation to its limits, the artists in IA are attempting to make this mess of recombinations visible. By and large, their work is imbued with their own subjective power. Sam Guerrero’s Roy illuminates the appropriations in the Die Hard series that moved him while watching with his father. Paul Clay’s La Llorona Makes Guest Appearance at Candlelit Vigil is a mash up of club culture, mourning, and his own experience with and around Latin Culture. The works challenge us to be moved by the gross appropriations that are ubiquitous in our daily life. In order to produce its effect, we must experiment with a mode affective viewing as we bear witness. This method of appropriating to excess has the capacity to unhinge a better, subjective relationship with our own agentic capacity such that we can unlock the estrangement we all experience.
1“Appropriation,”The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 9 October, 2012 http://dictionary.oed.com/. 2Marx, Karl. “Estranged Labour” in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.