„I would prefer not to,“ replies Bartleby in a mild voice to a routine request to check copies raised by his employer, an elderly lawyer, in his office on Wall Street. The lawyer remains astounded. „I would prefer not to“ is a reply of two artworks by two French artists, Etienne Chambaud and Claire Fontaine.
Who is Bartleby and what is the reason behind his peculiar behavior is a question that the eponymous story is reluctant to answer. Even though Bartleby has stopped working, he remains in the office which he has made his home. He lives only on ginger nuts, and does not say who he is or what he is after. His incomprehensible ways, stubborn but mild, question the world of his elderly employer and all that it takes for granted. The lawyer keeps running away from him only to always come back.
Reviewers of the story published in the 1850s were in agreement that the text is both entertaining and fantastic. Reading short fiction by Herman Melville, writes one of them, is a very pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon. The modern reader of the story, on the other hand, suffers from existential questions. Rather than a supernatural phenomenon, she perceives in Bartleby an embodiment of the emptiness of the modern capitalist life. The law office becomes a stage of alienation, of repressed, socially unacceptable impulses, a space that fails to cover up its own absurdity and contingency represented precisely by the scrivener. Bartleby meets Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Musil, Walser or Camus, and becomes the main character of a major and powerful novel of modern emptiness – Life: A User’s Manual by George Perec. Modernity searches for its reflection in Bartleby and the fact that contemporary literature, theater, art or philosophy all like to reference the story, suggests, however commonplace it may sound, that modernity is still topical, that we still live it and that we suffer from it.
The strange mixture of power and powerlessness hidden in “I would prefer not to” is the main theme of the exhibition. Hence, it also involves politics. In fact, Bartleby today becomes more and more a political figure, an example of authentic resistance against the status quo. It is a key reference in the political theory of two philosophers, Slavoj Žižek and Giorgio Agamben, who both follow up the two key projects of modernity – psychoanalysis (Žižek) and Heidegger’s philosophy (Agamben). Face to face with the failures of the leftist experiments in the twentieth-century and with the contemporary capitalist crisis, both attempt to formulate a new “Bartlebian” politics; both insist that politics lies on a false foundation; its presuppositions regarding the nature of human being are fatally mistaken. Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to”, on the other hand, stages an act that speaks the authentic nature of man, a traumatic nature that we do everything to avoid.
Claire Fontaine is a Paris-based collective artist, founded in 2004. After lifting her name from a popular brand of school notebooks, Claire Fontaine declared herself a “readymade artist” and began to elaborate a version of neo-conceptual art that often looks like other people’s work. Working in neon, video, sculpture, painting and text, her practice can be described as an ongoing interrogation of the political impotence and the crisis of singularity that seem to define contemporary art today.
Etienne Chambaud is a French artist, who lives in Paris. His works explore the relationship between themselves and other artworks or the process of creation as such. His art repeats elements of the classical conceptual alphabet yet aims, at the same time, at a difficult-to-grasp negativity, which may take the shape of mechanical copying, destruction or self-reflection ad absurdum. Chambaud’s work insists on its own enigma and reminds one of “mise en abyme”, which makes any escape impossible.