2017-2018 HTDTWT Seminar Sven Lütticken: How to Do Things with Forms (a.k.a. How to Form Things with Theory) ~

Please go to Syllabus 2017-2018 to see how HOW TO DO THINGS WITH THEORY is embedded in the DAI's curriculum.

Students participating in Sven Lütticken's seminar: Alaa Abu Asad, Matthieu Blond, Stephan Blumenschein, Sara Cattin, Leon Filter, Samantha McCulloch, Olga Micińska, Dina Mohamed, Karina Sarkissova, Nina Støttrup Larsen.

About: Sven Lütticken

Sven Lütticken's seminar FROM MONTH TO MONTH

How to Do Things with Forms (a.k.a. How to Form Things with Theory)


Between the 1960s and 1980s, art made a decisive move from object-based to contextual practice. In the process, a formalist theory of art was swept away by the rise of theory in its many guises. For conceptual artists, the essence of art was no longer formal but philosophical, theoretical; the modernist conception of art as self-critical and self-reflexive was turned against the limited and medium-specific understanding of this project by formalist critics such as Greenberg. A work of art did not have to consist of shapes on a canvas, or indeed of a shaped canvas; it could be a dictionary definition or statement. With institutional critique, the “frames” of art became the subject matter of the piece, with the artist taking cues from sociology, systems theory and critical theory.

The artist now was no longer a maker who could raise Gestalt to the highest degree (to paraphrase Rudolf Arnheim), but someone who used (post)structuralist, critical, feminist, posthumanist or decolonial theory as aesthetic material. This “theoretical turn” also had fundamental consequences for art education. With its How to Do Things With Theory seminars, DAI is a product and producer of post-formalist art training. And yet… True to form, the repressed just-past comes back to haunt the present. Theory itself is hardly devoid of formal elements, and artistic uses of and interventions of theory can be seen as so many productive deformations (Smithson and Kubler, Broodthaers and Barthes, Kelley and Freud, Fraser and Bourdieu, Jonas Staal and Judith Butler, Rana Hamadeh and Fred Moten).

Historically, the notion of form has been part of a number of dialectical pairings. There’s form and matter, or morphe and hyle: the relation between the two has remained contentious. Yve-Alain Bois critiques Aristotelian hylomorphism, “where form is an a priori UFO that lands on raw matter,” and Henri Focillon insisted that “form does not behave as some superior principle modeling a passive mass, for it is plainly observable how matter imposes its own form upon form.” Then there’s the duo of form and content. Hegel noted an “absolute correlation of content and form: viz., their reciprocal conversion or reversal [Umschlagen], so that content is nothing but the conversion of form into content, and form nothing but the conversion of content into form.” Adorno stressed that form is the sedimentation of content; i.e. forms always comes out of certain historical and social conditions; it does not exist in a vacuum of “pure form.” Think of the modern bourgeois novel, or the easel painting, or of specific novels and easel paintings. Critics such as the Russian Formalists of the 1910s and 1920s (who were allied with Russian avant-garde art) focused on ways in which new forms could generate new meanings and modes of perception. Through ostranenie (making- strange), the artwork could break through ingrained mental, cultural and social habits. 

Finally, there’s form and structure, with various authors posing a structural(ist) approach to form and meaning to one that is merely “morphological,” with structural formalism being concerned with the differential value of signs instead of their Gestalt. One might say that form pertains more to the outer form as a whole, and structure to an inner ordering—a segmentation and sequencing, in internal differentiation. Bois, who claims the Russian formalists as well as Saussure among his ancestors, notes that a structuralist analysis of Mondrian’s work “examines the semantic function played by various combinations of pictorial elements as Mondrian’s work evolved and seeks to understand how a seemingly rigid formal system engendered diverse significations.” However, what about structures outside the confines of a text of painting? What about social structures, for instance? Going beyond form and structure in visual artworks, novels, films or performances, one could examine social, economic, juridical and technological forms and structures. Could one problem with many historical formalisms be that they were not thorough and encompassing enough in their understanding of form?

With Agamben’s form-of-life informing projects such as Creative Time’s Living as Form, with the issue of self-organization being a pressing one (organize yourselves before others organize you), with classic institutional critique morphing into various types of institutional activism and infrastructural critique, form is back on the agenda in ways that would indeed require the development of a social and political formalism. This would have to be a formalism of time as well as space, a formalism attuned to rhythms, durations and decisive moments. But while we try to shape the social and create structures for living and working together, certain thought-forms and value-forms that structure capitalist subjectivity and exchange continue to pre-, in- and de-form the quest for alternatives.

Form of the seminar

Each time, one or two students will prepare questions and observations about the texts. After an introduction by Sven, these will function as our point of entry into the texts and fuel our discussion. After a break, we may look in more detail into one of the texts. 

October: Political Formalism?

Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015), pp. 1-23.

Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (London/New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), pp. 196-208 Yve-Alain Bois, “Formalism and Structuralism,” in Bois, Buchloh, Foster and

Krauss, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism (London: Thames & Hudson, 2004), pp. 32-39.


Yve-Alain Bois, “Whose Formalism?,” in The Art Bulletin, March 1996, https://www.mutualart.com/Article/Whose-formalism-/6B323BBF31A195F8

Peter Osborne, “October and the Problem of ‘Formalism’” (2013), https://www.macba.cat/uploads/20130503/QP_28_PeterOsborne.pdf 

November: Assembling Forms of Life

Giorgio Agamben, Means Without Ends: Notes on Politics (Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), pp. 3-11.

Judith Butler, Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge MA/London: Harvard University Press, 2015), pp. 1-23,66-98, 193-219.

Jodi Dean, Crowds and Party (London/New York: Verso, 2016), pp. 1-29. Jonas Staal, “Assemblism,” in e-flux journal no. 80 (March 2017), http://www.e- flux.com/journal/80/100465/assemblism/


Giorgio Agamben, The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Forms-of-Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), pp. 91-122 

December: The Life and Movement of Forms

Henri Focillon, The Life of Forms in Art (New York: Zone, 1989), pp. 1-63, 95-156. George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (New

Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1962), pp. 1-61, 96-130.

Roger M. Buergel, “The Migration of Form” (2007), http://www.documenta12.de/index.php?id=1039&L=1

Mariana Silva, “The Insect Wing of the Museum of Social Forms,” in Margarida Mendes (ed.), Matter Fictions (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017), pp. 97-111.

January: Preformed Perceptions and Real Abstractions: Thought Forms, Value Forms

Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology

(London/Basingstoke, Macmillan 1978), pp. 1-79.

Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre, “The Economic Life of Things,” in New Left Review no. 89 (March-April 2016), pp. 31-54.

Nancy Fraser, “A New Form of Capitalism? A Reply to Boltanski and Esquerre” in

New Left Review no. 106 (July-August 2017), 57-65.

Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre, “Enrichment, Profit, Critique; A Rejoinder to Nancy Fraser,” in New left Review no. 106 (July-August 2017), pp. 67-76.


Sven Lütticken, “The Juridical Economy: Notes on Legal Form and Aesthetic Form,” in New Left Review no. 106 (July/August 2017), pp. 105-123.

February: In-Formation

Vilém Flusser, The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design (London: Reaktion Books, 1999), pp. 17-29, 85-94.

Gilbert Simondon, “Form and Matter” from The Individual and Its Physico- Biological Genesis, translated at https://fractalontology.wordpress.com/2007/10/03/translation-simondon-and-the-physico- biological-genesis-of-the-individual/ https://fractalontology.wordpress.com/2007/10/19/translation-simondon-completion-of- section-i-chapter-1-the-individual-and-its-physico-biological-genesis/

Yuk Hui, On the Existence of Digital Objects (Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), pp. 1-105 (including Bernard Stiegler’s introduction).


Blog post by “The Funambulist” on Simondon’s critique of the hylomorphic schema:

https://thefunambulist.net/architectural-projects/philosophy-form-matter-gilbert-simondons- critique-of-the-hylomorphic-scheme-part-1

Alexander R. Galloway, The Interface Effect (Cambridge/Malden: Polity Press, 2012), pp. 78- 100.

March: Networks

Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015), pp.112-131.

Yuk Hui, On the Existence of Digital Objects (Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), pp. 109-149.

Alexander R. Galloway and Eugene Thacker, The Exploit: A Theory of Networks

(Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press), pp. 1-101.

April: Organizational Aesthetics and Infrastructural Critique

Gerald Raunig, “Instituent Practices: Fleeing, Instituting, Transforming” (2006), http://eipcp.net/transversal/0106/raunig/en

Ekatarina Degot, “The Artist as Director: ‘Artist Organisations International’ and Its Contradictions,” in Afterall no. 40 (Autumn/Winter 2015), pp. 21-27.

Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Wivenhoe/New York/Port Watson: Minor Compositions, 2013), pp. 25-43

Marina Vishmidt, “Beneath the Atelier, the Desert: Critique Institutional and Infrastructural,” in Maria Hlavajova and Tom Holert (eds.), Marion von Osten: Once We Were Artists (Utrecht: (BAK, 2017, pp. 218-237.