an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 9, July - December 2012, ISSN 1552-5112



      Beyond the Landscape, or Agamben and the Impotentiality of Art


Marta Jecu

Jose Manuel Gomes Pinto



To be free is not simply to have the power to do this or that thing, nor is it simply to have the power to refuse to do this or that thing. To be free is (...) to be capable of one's own impotentiality, to be in relation to one's own privation. This is why freedom is freedom for both good and evil.[1]


Contemporary artists' residencies can be considered traces of early modern artistic colonies, situated outside the cities, which served as gathering sites for artists willing to detach from the rigors and constraints of Formalism and Academism in art, and to dedicate themselves to the direct painting of nature, or the “real”. These “places of inspiration” formed at the same time, influential “schools” with their specific theoretical background, and were placed in distant areas (islands – for the Romantics, the forest for the paysagistes of Barbizon, and the north of Africa and the Ottoman realm for the Impressionists and Expressionists.


(Washerwomen at the Oise River near Valmondois by Charles-Francois Daubigny,1865).


The landscape painters of Barbizon for example rooted their connection to a specific place as a principle of their practice. Their art brought a new sense of place and marked a shift from the hierarchic academism behind closed doors to an open territory of exchange and collaboration. Realist, as opposed to stiff academism, the movement was expressing the engagement with direct experience, but kept nevertheless an exterior viewpoint on nature. From a bird's-eye view perspective, the position of the artist was that of the intellectual observer, which does not blend with his object of study, but at the same time that of the empathetic advocate of the value of the unpredictable and the transformational.


(Charles-Francois Daubigny - Rising moon in Barbizon)



(Jean-Francois Millet,1856-1858,by Gaspard-Felix Tournachon (Nadar))


A new content in painting was therefore formulated by incorporating into the subject matter an unrepeatable experience, that also dictated a new methodological approach. Still, their getting together was not based merely on artistic considerations, but mostly on social networks, and friendship, as they didn't formulate a coherent manifesto, but maintained artistic independent positions[2]. The works subsumed now in the “school” of Barbizon are therefore rather disparate, stemming from not contiguous visions and drives. In unequivocal terms, their position represents a point of junction between a self-imposed exile (as a form of passive protest) and a connection to “the real”, that was seen as a more profound artistic experience, a more genuine art. This collaboration between active retirement (which can be, but does not have to be, in nature), protest, the search for freedom of experience as a way to connect to “the authentic”, seems to haunt still the function of artistic residencies today. By 1850, immersion and exploration, apprehension of the “foreign” and its consequent taming, came to be associated with the idea of a hub for creation.[3]  Nevertheless Barbizon artists were relying considerably on urban support, both for production, as well for introducing their works into a commercial circuit, although they had constructed a viable and sustainable infrastructure in the rural environment[4].


As opposed to the more closed and mostly religious oriented artistic brotherhoods of that epoch,[5] the school of Barbizon set the basic parameters for the concept of residency, finding alternative ways that permitted them to adapt to changing social circumstances, make use of local resources, and also the latest commercial and technological conditions in order to exercise progressive solutions in the art profession. A spatial seclusion – a group settlement with its own functional microstructure, away from the social “self”, but also a retreat to a temporality of contemplation, apart from the pressures of commercial obligations, are therefore historically part of the idea of residence.


Deeply connected to what Giorgio Agamben calls the abyss of human power, a residency is a site of potential. Politically charged, this potential that any voluntary intervention carries will be discussed, not from the point of view of its dimension of realization through particular works, but from the perspective of the impotentiality that every act carries. What Agamben conceives as potential – the capacity of one's own incapacity, the potentiality not-to-do – will be put into relation with the complex nature of retreats, with mobility and the responsibility of intervention, that depart from a 'foreign-owned' postcolonial marked discourse.


Ambiguous issues regarding residencies, are forwarded by this year's “Higher Atlas” 2012 Marrakesh Biennial, that promoted site-specificity and long duration creative periods in the production of the works. The biennial curated by Carson Chan and Nadim Samman and sustained mainly and privately by art patron Vanessa Branson, has been supported also by the Swiss-based international foundation and residency center Dar Al-Ma’mûn near Marrakech. As host for artistic colonies since the end of the nineteenth century, Morocco has been both a subject in painting, but also historically an influential place of retreat, and catalyst in the formation of various schools and currents that determined certain methodological approaches to open air painting. After being a nest for expressionist artists settling temporarily there in the first decades of the 20th century, it has been also a favorite place of Winston Churchill, who chose Marrakech as his refuge, in which he assiduously, landscape painted.  He met here with a Berber pasha in 1943, Hassan El Glaoui, who's paintings impressed Churchill, and he encouraged El Glaoui to dedicate to his art, which remains a significant part of Moroccan contemporary patrimony.[6]


(Marrakech, by Winston Churchill, 1950s)


(Koutoubia Mosque - Winston-Churchill, 1943)


This encounter became a founding event in the history of Moroccan art, since it is considered to have precipitated the development of the Moroccan “modern school”, which El Glaoui initiated, but also as a paradigmatic gesture of creative convergence, which now “academized”, still shows its traces in the environment of art education – marked by expressionism.


The complex nature of retreats, in light of their forceful political statement is a contested terrain. The retreat, as “away”, but at the same time a “seclusion” from social-personal but mostly also economical concerns, can be a refuge or a site of protest. Treated from the point of view of its oscillation between still and moving, the retreat becomes an expression of a political potential that inhabits every action or the restraint from it. Mobility, like nomadism and its effects of deterritorialization are profoundly connected to forms of embodiment and to a tactile approach to the world, which defy an external vision centered perspective. “The resident” is on the edge between surrender to the foreign environment and imposing an intervention, that is not always in a relation of exchange with the host environment. Only the fact that a residency represents the possibility of doing something that has no place in the spatial and temporal continuity of a dominant system, states its political and ethical ambiguity. This is how the Portuguese artist Alexandra do Carmo comments on the potential of residencies, in a text published by her for Residency Unlimited in New York, 2010:


...The work may happen anywhere, where there’s a clear intention to act upon certain social and political conditions, a disruption of the social norm. The residence arrangement should be one that actively helps the artists achieve their ends, even if the result is not fixed spatially. Unfortunately, peculiar arrangements abound: residency programs that call for the discrete production of an art work as a product within a specified amount of time – a delivering of goods, residencies that advertise the natural surrounding – a vacation to paradise land, residencies proud of their monastic isolation, or photos of the artist’s prospective studio, so carefully prepared that a sushi plate on the kitchenette counter waits to receive the artist in style. I envision a perfect residency: one with no walls, using all the necessary walls available in the community, one where to build new walls means to carefully design them according to people’s discourse, transforming language into a concrete room.[7]


Engaging a residency affirms a particular mode to engage with the world. It manifests itself always through comparison: expressing an anarchic desire to be more intense, more haptic, more affective, more vital or more exposed than one’s own environment of reference. On the other hand, the immersion into a foreign environment is a modality to negotiate one's own position with a dimension of surrender. Processuality of production and thenot-finite” character that site-specificity brings with itself, imply a not always effectively marketable work. The factor of unpredictability is implicit and states a niche inside the art market system. Freedom/leisure and labor, step on this terrain into each other, but the ultimate goal of this “stepping-aside” is still that of self-realization through the search of new resources. David Bissell and Gillian Fuller explain[8] that ‘remaining still’ exists as a condition of political possibility, but at the same time it is seized upon and engineered by other forces - particularly through channels of authoritarian capitalism to great material and symbolic effect. “Still” is both anti-democratic (as being a deprivation of the right to move freely) and a threat to neoliberal capitalism, and leads to its disintegration. Artistic mobility can often make use of structures of exploitation that abuse local resources, and are based on nationalist discourses and staged moral responsibilities, which actually presuppose socioeconomic inequality. On the other hand, as they are located not outside, but beside the mainstream flow of commodities, they support the retreat of the artists from economic obligations and offer a rather artificial time span, in which not mere production, but the potential for it can come to expression. As residencies are favoring the commitment of the artist to an adopted environment, and often encourage socially-oriented works that confront and interpret local causes – they provide means to incorporate into the artistic experience a reality, which is implicitly considered as running parallel to the mainstream flow of commodities. A residency represents, from this point of view, a possibility that has not yet been consumed.


As affiliated with the 2012 Marrakech Biennial, the Dar Al-Ma’mûn has hosted a three month residency program, with artists such as – Berlin-based Sinta Werner, Elin Hansdottir, and the Japanese artist, Megumi Matsubara – but also organized associated events. As the two directors of Dar Al-Ma’mûn, Carleen Hamon and Julien Amicel explain in an interview[9], the project aims to support both Moroccan and African artists by promoting cultural identity beyond borders, and to dedicate itself to the proximate geographical environment in which it is situated, the village of Tassoultante. The center supports young African artists, in order to continue their education for a year at the national art school of Bourges, and encourages Middle East - North Africa mobility, by organizing partnerships with institutions in the Arab world. The center also conducts tutoring and after-school activities for the village, in collaboration with the Moroccan Zakoura Education Foundation.

(Dar Al-Ma'mûn)


Still it is often the microgeography of the site itself that sets the parameters of discourse. Here is how Sinta Werner, a Berlin-based artist of the Biennial and resident in Dar Al-Ma’mûn, talks about her concrete contact with the local environment and the work of Elin Hansdottir, who constructed with local building techniques, a labyrinthine installation in Tassoultante:[10]


            Q: Many residencies are based on the idea of contact with the local community. Is the idea of community itself not supposing a bunch of preformed expectations?

Sinta Werner: Dar Al-Ma’mûn was a special situation. As the residency building is not constructed yet, the residency artists are accommodated at the neighboring luxury Fellah Hotel. The immediate local community are rather poor inhabitants of a small village. The contact between hotel and village has so far only been by them helping with the construction of the hotel and the gardening. A wall and a watchman 24 hours a day keep them separated. A fellow artist and friend, Elin Hansdottir made an installation between the village and the hotel. A hole in the wall has been made so that there is direct access to the installation from the hotel. 


(Ellin Hansdottir. Mudbrick Spiral in construction process)


(Elin Hansdottir. Wall opening)


It is progressively hard to speak about one’s own and the foreign. These concepts, as they are involved in a political way, seem not specific enough to encompass the present divergences, and circulation on an economic and conceptual level. One of the curators of the 2012 Marrakech Biennial, Carson Chan put it quite clearly, when approached on this question by a Berlin Artinfo[11] journalist regarding the Biennial being financed mainly with funds from the exterior:


            Q: The (Marrakech) Biennale has always been supported by the West financially, by Vanessa Branson in particular, which puts it in a kind of precarious postcolonial space. Is that something you are contending with within the exhibition itself?

            CC: That kind of colonialist gesture hasn’t escaped us for sure. I think one can reflect on it through postcolonialism or one can reflect on it by saying, “Well, Morocco is in fact part of the international community. Its been what, half a century, to say with regard to anyone going to do a project, that there is a postcolonial gesture in it – is kind of like beating an old horse.(...)And within our board and our management, the whole team is Moroccan. I’m not, but everyone else is. Vanessa’s money, I mean she’s British, but I’m from Hong Kong. People are from all sorts of different places. More importantly, I think, is how a postcolonial identity has affected people in Morocco.


The problem of immersion and intervention in a foreign context has often raised a biased vision: of the “site” defined by sedentary qualities, whereas the guest artists and curators implement structures, which are seen as being mobile, interchangeable, liquid, and pertaining to a global flow. “Dar Al-Ma’mûn is a unique structure in Morocco and the non-profit-making status of our activities is a powerful force in unifying the Moroccan cultural interests and in raising its profile beyond borders,”[12] - states the general concept of the residency. This rather contrived conflict (between the static local community and the promoters, connected to a global movement of goods and ideas) presupposes also, a vision of place as being a container of action and social processes of various natures and agency. In surpassing it, extreme deterritorialisation of cultural acts can become another pitfall. The study of transnationality and deterritorialisation became a solid response to colonial approaches regarding foreignness and the self, and to building up knowledge of them, in the work of Homi Bhabha and James Clifford. Such work, for example, transgressed rigid definitions of nation, ethnicity and community as immobile entities, and described their transformatory potential in postcolonial terms.


Mobility is seen in recent tourism theory as a form of dwelling, whereas moving is a modality of practicing space, of practicing culture through the experience of space.[13] Place is not an individual experience, but a set of relationships, which assemble in time, adapt to different circumstances and stay in continuous formation. Interventionist practices, residencies and site-specific projects are symptomatic of complex relations that connect movements of travel with the fixity of what is understood as ‘home,’ enabling re-grounding and re-formulation of the delimitations of one's own place. Subjectivity and its formulation across a nomadic ‘home’ space is part of this cultural capital.


In 1997 Kevin Hetherington[14] described nomadic ‘home’ places in the contemporary world as ships, or mobile platforms, formed and sustained by the folding together of spaces and the relations of difference established by these folds. Place conceived as ‘circulating’[15] connects cultural immersion with a haptic dimension of geographical exploration. Hetherington discusses construction of place and subjectivity through the role of touch, as a form of non-representationalist knowledge.[16]  These approaches, which have put the accent on continuous contamination and movement, and not separation, have also been related to an affective approach to geography[17], as a vision that is not exterior to its objects. Based on an attitude that goes back to the innovations of artist colonies, the artist-explorer is effectively and affectively delivered in a sort of cultural voyeurism, to a world that requires a decidedly performative approach, but that also produces, as a consequence, a network for the assimilation of a not immediately predictable and marketable work. This is how Dar Al-Ma’mûn directors refer to the position, in the market system, of works produced during a residency: “A residence is not a counterpoint to the market, but a time for the construction of work, and producer of works, that are possibly destined to arrive at institutions or other market participants. Although Dar Al-Ma’mûn has a non-profit status, a residency is finally a structure that rises as a market player to public recognition, and the recognition of the professional artists with whom it engages.”[18]


A theoretical volume edited by the two curators Carson Chan and Naddim Samman accompanied the exhibition “Higher Atlas”.[19] The volume is a construction of contexts, which claim to situate the intervention that the Biennial formulates in situ and at the same time, situates the Moroccan reality in a wider cultural context. Still the representation of these quite livresque contexts, as nets of reference - remains blurred. The book omits a systematic in depth analysis of contemporary Moroccan reality, in favor of a delimitation of areas of cultural appurtenances, based on geographical approximations. Morocco is approached indirectly through articles on the art in “Africa”; in Maghreb, North Africa, and in the ‘South’. Theoretically overcharged, these texts construct a fluid and fluctuating identity of their subject, but miss an explicit confrontation with the immediacy of the cultural reality of Morocco and with its historic substrata, indispensable for a more robust, engaged intervention of the Biennial into its hosting environment. In an interview given by Carson Chan,[20] this fluidity, associated with an accent on sensory, haptic experience, is forwarded as the core of this exhibition:


Q: Did the “Arab Spring” affect curation of this project?

CC: The so-called Arab Spring (no one here would ever associate any kind of political unrest as a problem relating to other countries…) was definitely on my mind when I started conceptualizing the exhibition. Before spending time in Marrakech, all I knew of Morocco was what I read about in the media – a politics-biased reading, if anything. The very fact that we made an exhibition of contemporary culture was a response to politic-heavy understanding of North Africa. People here go shopping, go to restaurants, read books, watch movies and use the internet for YouTube just like everywhere else. (…)

            Q: Was it difficult for you to get rid of postcolonial shades and Orientalist romanticism?

            CC: Postcolonialism and its echoes are definitely here, but not unlike other cities such as Hong Kong, Montreal or Mexico City.


Later in the interview Carson Chan affirms: “The exhibition, often spectacular, sometimes very quiet, was curated to appeal first and foremost to the senses.” Also, he concludes his own article included in the Biennial volume with: “An exhibition is also called a show, because in the end, it should be a space of entertainment, of amusement.”[21]


This accent on the fluidity and universality of experience, which permits being at ease in a foreign environment and enjoying immersion in it, states an apparent non-hierarchical approach, but can be based also on a forced identification of the so-called “other” with one's own value system and movements, that equalizes in order to assimilate; for example, belonging/participation to universal activities in global capitalism (shopping, dining and YouTube) or the goal of integrating the works (as final results of a directed process) into the global market. Part of this assimilation can be also an ethnographic interest for collecting elements of the “local culture” (seen implicitly as “real” or “authentic”) and introducing them into one's own art that is  – since the Barbizonists' escapades into “the rural” – a proof of clashing within a certain context.


(Charles Jacque, 1848, aquaforte)


Alexandre Defaux – The Bazaar, 1856


Employing the residency time offered by Dar Al-Ma’mûn for some of the artists, the “Higher Atlas” show sustained apprenticeship and implication of local crafts.


(Megumi Matsubara, Void Between, 2012, credit by R.V.Wienskowski)


Borrowing local craft techniques or elements, and deploying them within contemporary art practices may then pass than as a “re-valorization”, a “saving“ of traditional values by the contemporary artist, running the risk of affirming an implicitly domineering discourse or feeding a local nationalistic sensibility.


The position of the artist-explorer can hardly be conceived other than in the concrete terms of a particular situation, in which the subject gets entangled. Mobility studies help to determine if these factors are ordinary, common experiences or belong to the register of the extra-ordinary, and can be retained, documented, archived. But mobility encompasses as such a virtual dimension, in the sense that it determines a becoming with an indefinite outcome. It represents in itself a potentiality, which expresses the power to transform, to reaffirm and regenerate both temporal and spatial coordinates. Such a dimension of becoming, inherent in all non-local experiences, as a temporary, fluctuating, but continuous actualization, has also political relevance. Rather than in the realization, or in the accomplished dimension of achieved objectives, the political dimension of residencies dwells in their not manifested, potential.


Giorgio Agamben discusses potentiality from the perspective of what we cannot do. For Agamben, at stake in understanding the concept of potentiality, is not the mere impotentiality, in the sense of impossibility, but rather the potentiality ‘not-to-do.’ This is not the absence of what could be done, but is that which proves that there exists the potential to do something. The freedom to refrain from an act, proves that there exists a potentiality to act in a certain situation, which is in itself a positive/affirmative act. Agamben understands potentiality as something real, as it is a constituent part of reality. The potentiality not to discussed in “On Potentiality” included in Agamben's volume Potentialities[22] and especially in chapter 11, ‘On Potentiality,’ is based on Aristotle, which Agamben considers to have been misinterpreted  in regard to potentiality. Agamben is arguing that the essence of potentiality is not simply non-Being, but the existence of non-Being, the presence of an absence. This potential not to pass into actuality, is the one that interests Agamben. “To be potential means: to be one's own lack, to be in relation to one’s own incapacity. Beings that exist in the mode of potentiality are capable of their own impotentiality, and only in this way do they become potential.”[23] The capacity, of one's own incapacity, is that in which freedom actually exists. Agamben calls the “I can” -  “…for each of us perhaps the hardest and bitterest experience possible: the experience of potentiality.”[24] That every human potentiality is in relation to its own privation is for him “the origin (and the abyss) of human power, which is so violent and limitless with respect to other living beings.”[25] From this perspective, it also becomes visible, “…how the root of freedom is to be found in the abyss of potentiality.”


Thinking about voluntary interventions in a given environment and the power that every act expresses, the fundamental paradox which rises, is how can the actuality of the potentiality to-not-be, be considered? How can the potentiality to not act (without being a manifestation of passivity and refrain from action), be actualized as a potential? In Agamben's vision the potentiality to-not-be does not disappear into, nor is annulled by actuality, but survives actuality and preserves itself as such in actuality.[26] The understanding of impotentiality as fulfilled and not destroyed by an act/intervention, accomplishes the experience of potentiality and its actualization.


An expression of the consciousness of the potentiality not-to-do, is often missing from discourses that equalize difference in order to legitimize intervention and the affirmation of authority. Not only within the dual potential of becoming that mobility carries with it - but mostly in the awareness of this virtual dimension that any intervention implies - lies also its political significance. The impotentiality of every act needs to be fulfilled in order that the act be actualized. Relevant in this context is the fact that Agamben discusses the moment after a potentiality has passed into actuality. In the case of “I can” - the sentence becomes ‘I did,’ whereas in the case of “I cannot” - it becomes ‘I could have not’, which is the possibility in which an intervention into a foreign environment, can function as a politically correct act.  The negation is accompanying the act, and the negation passes into the act, even when this is actualized: so “I could have not” accompanies the “I did”. Only out of a relation to one's own incapacity can the freedom of a voluntary act - which any intervention into an environment claims, along with the ease of a capacity and capability to act - be fulfilled as a potential of which the subject is aware:


To be suddenly present in completely another context has a political aspect to a certain extent. To make yourself function better, it sometimes helps to put yourself in another context. This is in the nature of art or creativity. You have to always escape from anything that institutionalizes you or simply puts you in a box. You are lucky if you are able to avoid such pressures by not leaving your home at all. It is only when a project is conducted, that an artist shows her/his gesture. Art suddenly adds something to the context. Whether this gesture is political or not depends on the project and its engagement to the context around. It is not the fact that you are in a foreign country that makes your practice political.[27]



an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 9, July - December 2012, ISSN 1552-5112



[1]   Giorgio Agamben (1999), Potentialities, Collected Essays in Philosophy, Stanford University Press, Stanford California, p 183

[2]   See for information on the Barbizon school: Barrett, B. D. (2010). Artists on the edge: The rise of coastal artists' colonies, 1880-1920 : with particular reference to artists' communities around the North Sea. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, especially Chapter 3:  Barbizon as a Prototype for Artists’ Colonies on which I rely in the following information on the Barbizon school.

[3]   Idem, p. 90

[4]   Idem, p. 118

[5]   For example the German brotherhood Nazarenes,  that favoured a closed Gesellschaft or the English Ancients and the French Barbus.  Their specificity as artistic groups was maintained in a softer form in the later movement of the Pre-Raphaelites.

[6]   Recently an exhibition in the Leighton House Museum in London staged an exhibition by joining their works. “Meetings in Marrakech: the paintings of Hassan El Glaoui and Winston Churchill”, Leighton House Museum  (20 January - 31 March 2012).

[7]   Alexandra do Carmo: A room of one's own, Contribution for the Residency Unlimited, 2010,

[8]   David Bissell, Gillian Fuller (Eds), The Revenge of the Still, in M/C Journal (The Journal of Media and Culture),Vol. 12, No. 1 (2009) editorial.

[9]   Email interview April 2012.

[10] Excerpt from an interview with Sinta Werner, April 2012

[11] Alexander Forbes, An Interview with Carson Chan: Marrakech Biennale Curator Carson Chan on How the Arab Spring Has Influenced Exhibition-Making, in Berlin Artinfo: , December 2011.

[12] My italics. General statement of the Dar Al-Ma’mûn residency's goals, see under:

[13] See for example the work of John Urry and  in respect to some ideas exposed more down  Pau Obrador Pons (2003), Being-on-holiday, Tourist dwelling, bodies and place, in Tourist Studies, Sage Publications, London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi, vol 3(1) 47–66

[14] Kevin Hetherington (1997), Place of Geometry: The Maturity of Place, in Kevin Hetherington and R. Munro (Eds.), Ideas of Difference, Blackwell, Oxford.

[15] Idem, p.187

[16] Touch is a form of unconditional acknowledgment of the immediate presence of the other, which therefor becomes part of oneself. Hetherington, Kevin (2003). Spatial textures: place, touch, and praesentia. Environment and Planning A, 35(11), pp. 1933–1944.

[17] For example works that connect psychogeography with film and the arts, see Giuliana Bruno (2002), The Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film. New York: Verso.

[18] Email interview April 2012

[19] Ed. Carson Chan and Nadim Samman (2012): “Higher Atlas / Au-Dela de l'Atlas. The Marrakech Bienniale in Context”


[21] Carson Chan: “Let me entertain you: A consideration of Context and Audience in curating the 4th Marrakech Biennial” in Ed. Carson Chan and Nadim Samman (2012): “Higher Atlas / Au-Dela de l'Atlas. The Marrakech Bienniale in Context”, p.84.

[22] Giorgio Agamben (2008), Uber negative Potentialitaet, in Emmanuel Alloa, Alice Lagaay (Hg.): Nicht(s)sagen, Strategien der Sprachabwendung im 20. Jahrhundert, Transcript Verlag, Bielefeld, p.  285-298.

    Giorgio Agamben (1999), Potentialities, Collected Essays in Philosophy, Stanford University Press, Stanford California

[23] Idem. p. 182 (italics in the original)

[24] Idem, p.178

[25] Idem, p.182

[26] Idem

[27] Excerpt from an interview with Megumi Matsubara, April 2012