On the Conveyor Belt of the Imagination

by Stefan Zweifel

‘The artist builds into his work shattered, burnt, broken objects in order to give Michael Landy, Museum Tinguely, Basel, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Stefan Zweifelthem back to the realm of the desiring machines; he presents paranoid miracle and bachelor machines, while these are always technical machines that are suited, as desiring machines, to undermining the technical machines.’

Gilles Deleuze/Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, Frankfurt a. M. 1977

The river that, in 1783, flew romantically through an American mill, driving the world’s first conveyor belt, set the course of things – the procession of products – rolling. More and more, the conveyor belt enhanced productivity. More and more, products were brought into larger circulation, whose second phase – the phase of death – has probably never been so clearly illustrated as in 2001, when, with Break Down, Michael Landy placed his entire household on a conveyor belt in an empty department store from the C&A chain to [achieve] a new, ‘property-less’, being. He cut up the individual items from his possession – 7227 objects –, dissolved his entire past which had been embodied in these items, liberated his old Self, becoming unfettered from the binds of capitalism: The conveyor belt became the torture rack upon which Landy, like a sadistic child dismembering an insect, rummaged in the guts of the things and destroyed them. Creation as destruction. Capital, and the mania for money and admiration, ensnare us more and more tightly until they strangle the free flow of our breath, the flow of our imagination, and we stride through life now as mere puppets, as product puppets, moved and manipulated by capital’s invisible strings. Landy renounced this with Break Down. It was a spectacular action, which made the artist world-famous, for in the ‘society of the spectacle’ even the most radical protest against our consumerism is monopolised by capital and turned into a trademark.

Landy lucidly pulled away from this compulsion towards the spectacle, which the Paris Situationists in the 1960s had already analysed and denounced, by copying in tender lines for his next group of works, Nourishment, flowers and grasses that sprouted from [the] cracks in [the] roads and [the] holes in [the]* walls. Enraptured, he immersed himself in the least prepossessing – not copying spectacular orchids or exotic vegetation, but common, ‘base’ plants of no value – entirely in the manner of Jean-Jacques Rousseau when, in 1776, on his way home beyond the walls of Paris with his magnifying glass and herbarium, collecting the worthless plants in the fields and marvelling over the sexual springiness of the seed pods, he was sent flying by a capitalist’s coach and cracked his chin on the cobbles of Ménilmontant. Blood trickled out of his wounds, like the romantic rippling of a brook, and his Self opened in gentle ecstasy, for while unconscious he had forgotten who he was, where he lived, what he owned.

Entirely free and unconnected, Rousseau was no longer a ‘subject’, but a pure ‘ject’, flow and dice-throw**. A conveyor belt that produced nothing, but now recorded only pure feeling. But can one really, as Rousseau dreamed in his Rêveries d’un promeneur solitaire (1776/1778), pull away from the whirl of progress? Can one escape humanity’s history of decline, which began when, as Rousseau wrote in the Discours sur l’inégalité (1755), somebody hammered a stake in the ground and declared: ‘This land belongs to me. This is my property.’ With this, though, the human Self pegged itself to man’s property, it allowed itself to be taken into possession by goods.

Michael Landy definitely does not dream as naively as Rousseau did of dropping out of society and returning to nature, but investigates the circulation of recycling and, with his creations, delves right into the mechanism of machines.



* Definite articles added.

  • ** flown and dice-thrown in the final version. I had translated the German nouns as nouns – as can be seen here. That’s the only way it makes sense!