From intermediality to inframediality: for a medial intentionality

For many, Marcel Duchamp has always been the ‘inventor’ of ready-mades. From the bicycle wheels which, together with the fork, he bolted onto a kitchen stool, through the legendary bottle drier and above all the upside-down urinal, to the many other objects of everyday life like snow shovels or coat hooks, Duchamp took industrially mass-produced goods that can be procured from household suppliers and ironmongers and – when lost or damaged – reprocured and, through the artistic act of isolating, signing and exhibiting in the hallowed halls of culture, turned them into works of art. Ever since, this novel idea has been inextricably bound up with the name of Duchamp, seen as the founder of an ongoing avant-guarde of intellectual self-reflection on the artistic process and on the sites of its presentation. Above all, however, the Dadaist intervention was considered an appropriate response on the part of art to the industrial and media revolution with its devaluing of creativity by making the artwork a technical reproduction.

Running counter to the subsequent legend of the artist Duchamp who gave up painting and devoted the rest of his life to playing chess, there have been several historico-cultural interpretations over the last twenty years that attempt a different approach to his ideas. They have not simply pointed out that Duchamp did in fact continue to work for over half a century and produced, among others, his two great works (“Le grand verre” and, in the final years, “Etant donné”), but also endeavored to reconstruct the intellectual background of his conceptualist engagement with his projects. Linda D. Henderson and others in America as well as Herbert Molderings in Germany have drawn attention to the natural scientific paradigms that shaped Duchamp’s approach to his works and essentially concentrated on the discussion on the fourth dimension that dominated debates after 1900. One name here has always stood out: Henri Poincaré, who attempted in popular publications to explain the physicalist experiments on the paradoxical relativity of the time continuum to the Euclidic spatial constructions of point, line, surface and body. Duchamp was, like his fellow Cubists in the art scene, facing the challenge of artistically portraying this transcendental dimension of temporalization, which meant having recourse to the spaciality of the perception of movement, of simultaneity, but also of abstracting traces of movement. Duchamp knew about chronophotography. Cinema had only recently been invented, but this did not resolve the dilemma or the aporia of presenting time as time – and in the Paris of the time this dilemma had found an eloquent advocate: Henri Bergson, the philosopher who spoke about time as durée in a way that denied the thinkers in particular their right to relevancy and who looked to Art for another way of handling this unavailable condition that was conceptually petrified into the temps passé of frozen time frames.

Two moments are extremely interesting in this connection for our research project on “inframediality”. On the one hand, it is hardly surprising that Bergson was the one who, with reference to this stereotypical fixing of temporal becoming in conceptual entities like clothing sizes, had drew attention to the topos of “tout-fait”, already present in the French language. On the other hand, his vitalistic, even spiritualistic, approach was a polemic against any presentation/perception of temporal becoming and in this respect also an attack on the cinematographic illusion of movement by cutting it up into individual shots. All this is perhaps nothing new, yet the direct translation of “tout-fait” as “ready-made” has hardly been noticed as such, and name Bergson is only mentioned in passing in the canon of turn-of-the-century philosophers who were engaging with natural science and may have influenced Duchamp. Indeed, an examination of the works of the philosophy professor of the Academie francaise, Henri Bergson, which Duchamp could hardly have avoided either in the public life of Paris or during his time spent working in the library of Sainte Généviève, would produce some key insights into the concepts we are discussing: namely that the ready-mades functioned as per se inadequate forms of perception of duration, as negative examples of an artistic non-presentability, while the artist’s endeavors for the “Großen Glas” or the later Philadelphia installation “Etant donné” were directed at another dimension of presentation than that of movement or simultaneity, for these were concerned with the opening up of the artwork to the new dimension of time as intensive duration, i.e. not as cinematographic effect.

All the efforts, the problematisings of time as movement and duration, the consequently temporal translation between concept and presentation, between text and image, between levels and dimensions, but also between energies and intensities, are in their redefining of the artwork directed at its mediality. Experiencing the artwork as a medium means not comprehending it as a subject of what is visible but as a form of making-visible. It is about techniques of evidentiality as the structure of the medium, which inaugurate in this structure an agency to release the signifying through communication and interaction. This releasing was defined by Duchamp in his later reflections with the admittedly paradoxical concept of “infra-“. The topos which, in our research context, is supposed to make every media structure more richly readable as infrastructure, is based on Duchamp’s expression “infra-mince“, which is intended to evoke the wafer-thin, the ultra-fine and thus the ambiguous of categorical distinctions, e.g. between cause and effect, identify and difference, reality and possibility, originality and repetition, affirmation and parody, or even self and other. In 1945 Duchamp lent visual expression to this figure for the first time by depicting on the front cover of the periodical VIEW a bottle against a starry sky; from the bottle, which bore his military service card as its label, escaped fumes. On the back-cover appeared the words, “If the tobacco smoke also smells of the mouth that breathed it, both odors will marry through infra-mince.” The wafer-thin switching from one form into another does not only occur between the content of the bottle and the gaseous discharging, but also between picture and text. Playing a role here is, as so often with Duchamp, the relationship between the concave (‘female’ casting mould) and the convex (‘male’ cast) or that between visual and olfactory factors.

What is decisive are the indeterminate processes in which forms move into each other while moving beyond themselves, seen as trans-formation or – as it is put in Duchamp’s notes on the “Großen Glas” – “demultiplication”, i.e. a fine-tuning of frequencies or power transmission between the gears of a machine. The, strictly speaking, “pata-physical” model of such infinitesimal determinations is, despite its aporia of undecidability, perhaps the adequate expression for an approach to a non-naive time-concept captured as an image. Duchamp’s rejection of the contemporary moving image in favor of a portrayal of succession through “instaneous rest” (combined with an equally paradoxical notion of the too-fast/”extra-rapide“) is perhaps not to be understood as anti-Bergsonian and pro-mechanistic, but as a figure with which to think a time-image that conceives duration in the sense of an intensity as potentiality, virtuality of an infra-structural difference of delay. In this way Duchamp could be thought of in the same way as Derrida with his concept of “différance”. The wafer-thin difference between the four dimensions points to a temporal becoming of the transformation itself in a sort of metamorphosis. Duchamp’s artworks would then be media as dispositives, since their meaning is dependent on their unfolding in other media. In the same way, the demultiplicative translation concept can also be compared to Benjamin’s translation concept of intention (as intentio recta, and not as the original determination by a subjective intent) occurring in individual languages when they are transcribed into others.

Our project is proceeding in two stages. Firstly, from a media-archaeology perspective, we examine Marcel Duchamp’s connection with Henri Bergson; and on this basis, secondly, we will discuss artistic approaches since 1960 in order to develop further Duchamp’s problematization of temporality and movement and the associated processes of making-visible in the context of the tensions between self-reflective reference structures and ‘poetic’ evidences. The objective is to develop a theory of inframediality, which means here transferring the insights gained in the artistic field to a theory of mediality. The emphasis on the infrastructural is intended here to overcome the mere comparative approach adopted by intermediality research in favor of a perspective of an immanent state of in-betweenness. Inframediality thus refers to a making-visible of latent internal structures of media configurations that pushes each individual medium beyond the boundaries of its given potential at any point in time. In the context of Duchamp and his reception by artists like Jasper Johns, Richard Hamilton or Andy Warhol, this can be illustrated very well with the example of the transformation of the photographic that does not end in the domain of the cinematographic, but generates a tension to the filmic negation of the moment. Accordingly, we are also seeking to trace the consequences in media practice of a disruption that are not be understood as a negative destruction of utility but are intended to illuminate the creative potential of artistic uses of media as a wafer-thin aberration.

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