A History of Irritated Material
Lars Bang Larsen

 ‘A History of Irritated Material’ is an exhibition that samples art's relation to politics, alienation and the archive. Taking a historical perspective on contemporary art and visual production, each position in the exhibition loosely corresponds to a decade since the end of the Second World War.

The title refers to the charged relationship that the exhibition establishes between art and social and psychological reality. To the father of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, irritability is a fundamental life principle: a lower limit of stimulation that is not necessarily understood negatively, but also as frictional heat and excitement, or other ways in which tolerance is pushed. In a similar way, the positions in the exhibition are characterised by being borderline phenomena, sitting at the edge of art history or at the boundary of art proper. This is how the works and projects in the exhibition speak about art’s resistance to inscription into culture at large which is a – rarely problematised – premise of contemporary art. Some of them are subterranean in the sense that they were conceived as ‘underground’ art, or for other public (or semi-public) spheres than the art institution. They cannot be unequivocally aligned with art historical narratives of the avant-garde or neo-avant-garde; psychedelic art and art activism, for example, both escape these classifications of an artistic modernity.   


The title also suggests material that is volatile; literally 'angry' or opaque, in response to a sick society, as the cliché goes; to a pathology of the body politic. It also suggests that the material is being irritated, being 'messed with', i.e. by the art or the artist. These are results of a problem-oriented artistic practice that relates its analysis to culture at large and at the same time sceptically examines itself. Thus ‘A History of Irritated Material’ is not a history of anti-art, or about art that goes outside of art (nor does the exhibition take refuge in art, of course). Instead it presents forms of critique that proceeds by aesthetic means, rather than by claims to truth or the need to establish equilibrium. 

In the words of Giorgio Agamben, the archival document draws its value from being placed in a chronology and in a relationship of proximity and legality with the past event. What, then, characterises an archive that contains unruly documents and that is not concerned with upholding a canon, but with finding ways of translating past events and knowledge into the contemporary?  


To visit an archive is an interval during which one can collect new images and ideas, and enter a process of accumulating experience. In this exhibition, the archive is a result of artistic research and an interface for the viewing and browsing of works, or it is simply the case that historical research (in institutional as well as private, ‘unauthorised’ archives) has informed the presentations. Most of all, perhaps, the archival is present as a particular sense of time: a creative and speculative attitude that cuts diagonally through contemporary reality. Thus the archive is not conceived as an authoritative totality, a principal that present events gravitate towards. Rather the exhibition points to a tactical use of archives and the fact that everybody makes her own itinerary through them, extracting an anachronistic map that can be used in the present situation. Several of the positions in the exhibition revolve around the group as author, just as the notion and uses of the archive beg shared or simultaneous agency, because it is open for several people to use or work in one at the same time. 


Alienation is a term that has fallen out of use. To Marx the lack of control over one’s labour results – through a kind of viral effect that spreads throughout social space – in estrangement from oneself and from other people. One may argue that the concept’s humanism and its connection to outdated ideas about ‘false consciousness’ has made it redundant, or that it fails to address the way each one of us actively reinterprets rules and norms in everyday life. There is a case for reconsidering the concept, however, in terms of an artistic method that is poised against potentially paralysing traits in contemporary politics and culture. Firstly, parliamentary politics have cancelled ideological conflict. This, at least, is the heritage of 1990s ‘third way’ policies. In this light, alienation represents the renewed possibility for disagreement and negation. A ‘globalised’ world that, as we have been told, has no outside, may benefit from ruptures that point towards new zones and structures in space and time. The same is true for the pressure that experience economies exert on art by rendering creativity and cultural experiences inextricable from economic purpose. Here, the subject has been placed outside of any necessary relation to history, since what matters is the mirroring and consumption of her own experience (or even of her own alienation). Under such a regime, this subject’s way back to history must be long, because art and culture have already been assigned functions that revolve around individual experience, its intensities and perceived essences.  


To admit estrangement from this state of affairs might not augur a new political enlightenment. But it may jolt – or irritate – history into running, if only as trickles of time that art makes seep from the archive.  

Thank you to Søren Andreasen for the title of the show.