Stanley Brouwn and The Zero Machine (1980)

Stanley Brouwn and the Zero Machine," Parachute, no 18 (Spring 1980), pp 18-20. Republished in Struggles with the Image: Essays in Art Criticism, Toronto: YYZ Books, 1988.

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Poster by Milt Jewell, 1981, based on text from article.

Poster by Milt Jewell, 1981, based on text from article.


Stanley Brouwn and The Zero Machine

If Dance in its most innovative instances has insisted on the alteration of the terms of discourse, pressed for an altered relationship between performer and audience, decreeing and soliciting new modes of attention and of gratification, this is, in part, because the audience has been, as well, the most problematic element in the dialectic of performance.[1]

Any discourse that alters its terms in relation to the intentional and symbolic structure of the art gallery must confront the problem of its audience. Exclusion from the art gallery and inclusion of the audience are the likely results of this attempt. Discourse exceeds the previously structured domain as a simple displacement or drift: excess as going out; the audience also exceeds a structure reinforcing identity and exchange through interpretative and performative force.

“Interpretation” and the “performative,” I think, are the terms of this changed relation, and enunciation the figure of its discourse. “Performative” is the linguistic notion of the act of utterance [2] that I have transferred to an act of the “spectator”; interpretation (not signification) is the force (or a difference in forces, which also may be the force of a loss) that a spectator brings to the work, in relation to it. Both interpretation and the performative, resting with the audience, are outside the search for, or transmission of, meaning; and, consequently, they are a shift and, therefore, a break from the structure of an art that secures the identity of meaning and personal subject, in an exchange brought about between the two through the regulating control of the art gallery.

Criticism, as a form of interpretation, must alter the terms of its discourse, perhaps toward the performative. The object of my interpretation is Stanley Brouwn’s This Way Brouwn. Interpreting Brouwn’s work, I act through a document. What are the assumptions of this act?[3] I only know the documentation, not the “originating” event; then perhaps I should stop at the surface of the documentation, and not attempt to go beyond the document to find its meaning in the support of the work; to find the intention of the work in the document; or to expect the documentation to be a re-presentation of the work. If my interpretation goes beyond the work, it is as a positive speech act and not as a detached and secondary representation of the meaning of the work. Rather than depart from the work, this activity may only constitute its plurality.

The documentation, a book This Way Brouwn,[4] consists of German and English text, reproductions of notes and drawings given to Brouwn during the execution of the work in Amsterdam. The English text follows:

Stanley Brouwn has been gathering This Way Brouwn answers since 1960. The present series was produced on Dam Place, Amsterdam, on February 25 and 26, 1961.

Brouwn is standing somewhere on the square. He picks at random a pedestrian and asks him to explain on a scrap of paper the way to another point in the town. Another pedestrian explains the same way to Brouwn. The 24th, the 2000th, the 100 000th pedestrian shows Brouwn the way. This Way Brouwn.

The pedestrian covers a distance from C to D. The point of departure A of a This Way Brouwn A-B is always situated somewhere on the pedestrian’s way. In those cases where B is also situated on C-D the This Way Brouwn becomes part of the pedestrian’s route. In the case of B-A there is no distance to be covered. The paper is likely to remain blank. No Way Brouwn.

A This Way Brouwn is produced in the time it takes for the pedestrian to give his explanation. No second thoughts, no polishing and touching up the result.

Brouwn’s share in the result is in putting the questions. In the presence at point A, in the fusion with point A, in representing point A in the flesh.

People should walk up to Brouwn and ask him: “Where do you want to go, Brouwn?”

There are no good This Way Brouwns. There are no bad This Way Brouwns. The result of a This Way Brouwn does not depend on the pedestrian selected. Brouwn does not select. He picks at random. The fleet of streets, squares, lanes, etc. is sinking deeper and deeper in a network of This Way Brouwns. All direction is being drained from it. They are leading nowhere. They are already involved, captured in my work. I am concentrating the direction of all possible ways in my work. I am the only way, the only direction. I have become direction.

People talk while sketching their explanations, and sometimes they talk more when they draw. On the sketches we can see what people explained. But we cannot see whatever they omitted having some difficulty to realize that what they take for granted needs to be explained.

Looking at This Way Brouwn we may imagine numerous other This Way Brouwns which might have happened instead.

The document “indicates” that the work was created in real time and literal space, created with the interactive participation of a public. Contemporary to Happenings and Fluxus’s breakdown of the separation of art and life, it was not an enactment of the artist’s real-time gestures in front of an audience still treated generally as a spectator. Although similar to the aims of Minimal art (or recent “spatial art”), it was not particularly concerned with extending the medium of sculpture to include the perceiving and motor human body in real time and literal space. Its “process” did not produce an “object” as occurred in anti-form art; nor was it conceptually objectified, but achieved in dialogue: it is produced in the time that it takes for the pedestrian to give his explanation.”

Dialogue is this event, produced in real time and space, between artist and audience. Although dialogue is grounded in community and communicability, Brouwn’s work (as witnessed by its conceptual presentation and documentation) only seems to initiate dialogue, not sustain it: “Brouwn’s share in the result is in putting the questions.” An interpretative and performative activity is demanded of the audience through the initial connection of the question. Dialogue is the communication of enunciation, not meaning, an act, not a transmission.

Although the performative is concerned with the act of utterance and not its content, and although the structure of this dialogue is without an initial content, a content can be brought to the work, by the audience, as an act that complements the transfer of responsibility to the audience. The demand opposed to the lack of some type of signification (as an increase in interpretation, as an excess of interpretative force) is similar to that of the archaic and primitive gift exchange analysed by anthropology.
Marcel Mauss examined the “total social phenomena” of primitive societies in an attempt to uncover the transactions regulating communities not based on the primacy of economic exchange. He found the gift exchange—which functions through the obligations to give, receive and repay—to be the common denominator underlying numerous social activities.[5] The forces operating the exchange, such as hau (the spirit which obligates), promote an increase in non-economic value: honour, prestige, position; and these values, exceeding the economic structure, are a type of content beyond exchange. The exchange operates as a dialogue, as a means of communication and integration; but it also allows something to exceed its regulating economy, that in my analysis is the interpretative force of response.

The necessity to motivate the gift exchange outside the utility of economics by the obligations to give, receive and repay was reinterpreted by Claude Lévi-Strauss as the necessity of the unconscious structure of the exchange itself. The three obligations, as production in excess or as surplus value of code, were reduced by Lévi-Strauss to a superstructural affect determined by the unconscious structure of exchange that is based on language. To explain the “supplement” of signification of notions like hau and mana, Lévi-Strauss conjectured a “zero symbolic value,” based on the linguistic hypothesis of the zero phoneme, and whose function “is to be opposed to the absence of signification without entailing by itself any particular signification.”[6] I think that the dialogue in Brouwn functions as a zero symbolic value (with some reservations to be discussed below), effecting itself in relation to an exterior, the public which brings an interpretative force to it.

The dialogical mechanism, as common as the practice of conversation, may be assumed, i.e., taken over, by the public, and, once assumed, “communicated.” If “the result of a This Way Brouwn does not depend on the pedestrian selected”, nor on the artist who only picks at random and puts the question, then anyone is able to engage in dialogical practice, and, indeed, to start it: “People should walk up to Brouwn and ask him: ‘Where do you want to go, Brouwn?’”

As much as dialogue integrates, the mechanism can also be a potential analyser, since it constructs by connecting with the interpretative force of the spectator/public, a force that combines desire and content. Compare the function of the theoretical mechanisms of psychoanalysis in relation to the subject’s history and desire: they explain an operation of desire and its repression, but also function in relation to a subject as analysand.[7] The dialogical mechanism has that same relational value. Desire and content, as interpretative force, must be considered together (while pulsionally unbound) in the same performative utterance, and, consequently, outside of ideological determination in their production. And that is why we cannot avoid content or naming desire.

In my interpretation of the Brouwn document, dialogue is not structured as knowledge or meaning; not as ideology, but as content/desire, although it is manifested within ideological formations. When Brouwn observes: “On the sketches we can see what people explained [when Brouwn asked directions in the street]. But we cannot see whatever they omitted having some difficulty to realize that what they take for granted needs to be explained”, we might attribute this to the need for ideological analysis. What the pedestrians omitted is assumed by the common ground of understanding, but it still needs to be explained, either by interpretation or further dialogue. Or to make up for what is left unsaid, we must also engage in ideological analysis, since what is omitted is often assumed as natural, whereas it is part of the history of the community. Instead of presuming an ideological analysis of a structural meaning, perhaps we should pay attention to what is produced—the enunciation, which may precede the description of a content as meaning, and call into question the individual subject.

[In abandoning an ideological analysis, I have to question my use of Lévi-Strauss’s structure, since, for him, interpretative force would be only a superstructural affect. As much as Lévi-Strauss’s analysis gives us a structural understanding of the mechanism in Brouwn’s document, does it not repress that mechanism in an equalized exchange that forbids the supplement of content; and reduce dialogue, “in conformity with the initial relational character of dialogue,” to a static and closed exchange of oppositions as equivalents, whereby each speaker is restricted to this form and identity? Does it not reduce the unconscious to an empty form where even desire is absent? Desire and content are extrinsic to the immanent field of his analysis—the illusional superstructure in conformity with the “real” structure of the unconscious. But what is the immanent field, what composes that field but the mechanism in production—an engaged machine rather than an empty structure, a machine that refuses the in-side/outside, structure/superstructure dichotomy?[8] Desire is a production of this immanence, whereas in Lévi-Strauss it is subsumed by the structure (the immanent field for Lévi-Strauss is structured rather than produced), as a mere form of ideology—an affect rather than effect.]

I wrote above: “the document ‘indicates’”; yet that was speaking through (beyond) the (transparent) document, and through critical and historical knowledge. In fact, I have a document presented to me in/as this book, beyond the artist’s presence. It would be misleading to confuse my relation to the document with that of a participant in the event; but in a conscious working through,[9] that is, in a relation of practice, in my reading and participant’s activity, a similar interpretative act ensues. As many times as Brouwn’s name appears in the document and as much as he seems to arrogate the activity to himself (“I am the only way”), an “author” is absent in the text. In the artist’s similar withdrawal into anonymity in the event—”Brouwn does not select. He picks at random”; “Brouwn’s share of the result is in putting the questions”—the subject-object relationship disappears—the relationship where the subject represents the spectator or the spectator is the subject to the art object. Following that disappearance is the undoing of my subjecthood, the loss of my identity in interpreting this document. My engagement with the text/work promotes this loss of identity as a constituted subject reinforced by the structures of society, the art gallery, criticism and art history, and meaning. The loss is not passive, but an active operation, an interpretation undoing my subject in following the operations of the text/work, in my struggle with it, in an assumption of its mechanisms that go beyond my individual subject toward collective enunciation. It is an operation common in the French theory of the Text:

Signifiance (sic) is a process in the course of which the “subject” of the text, escaping the logic of the ego-cogito and engaging in other logics (of the signifier, of contradiction), struggles with meaning and is deconstructed (“lost”); signifiance—and this is what immediately distinguishes it from signification is thus precisely a work: not the work by which the (intact and interior) subject might try to master the language (as, for example, by a work of style), but that radical work (leaving nothing intact) through which the subject explores—entering, not observing—how the language works and un-does him or her. Signifiance is “the un-end of possible operations is a given field of language”. Contrary to signification, significance cannot be reduced, therefore, to communication, representation, expression: it places the subject (of writer, reader) in the text not as a projection... but as a “loss”, a “disappearance”. Hence its identification with the pleasure of jouissance...[10]

While the subject as a spectator and an identity disappears, a subject, a speaking subject is formed in/as the network of dialogue, as a (multiple) production of interpretation(s).[11] The enunciation produced is not individuated[12] nor is the content to which it is related subjectivized; both issue as collective. Content and expression, as enunciation, usually are subjected to the use-value of meaning. That is, in communication, there is a definite meaning (content) in a message transmitted, received and understood, and a transparent medium (expression) of that transmission/exchange that carries the message. In enunciation (in the act of uttering, not in the uttered proposition or statement), the spectator’s body removes itself as a transparent receiver of a message (traditionally, in the structure of the work of art, the spectator is a repetition and reproduction of meaning, intention), in order to be inscribed as a material body, as content/desire. Instead of its communicative and representative functions, language here is performative, no longer a transparent carrier but an intense matter/sign, outside of exchange.

Enunciation as expression may precede content, in order either to prefigure it (expression may precede a new social form) or dissolve its previously rigid forms (Hjelmslevian “forms of content”) in a flow, or to make them follow a line of flight or transformation.[13] Content is carried in this issue—asignifying and aformal—as part of the enunciation, inseparable from desire: we have a “machine of expression capable of disorganizing the forms of content, in order to liberate pure content, which confounds itself with expression in a same intense matter (matière intense).”[14]

Perhaps more than formed, the subject is “set up” in a process of polyvalent and proliferating connections that are immanent and contiguous. There is neither a transcendental subject that guarantees this set-up, nor a transcendental law or Signified that rules the network (and this reading). It is an unlimited field of immanence (“champ d’immanence illimité”) of desire and power. Yet, “the problem: not at all to be free, but to find an issue, or an entry, or a direction, an adjacency, etc.”, in a network that is a matter of entries and connections.[15] This network is composed of a collective set-up of enunciation (“agencement collectif d’énonciation”) and a machinic set-up of desire
 (“agencement machinique de désir”).”[16] That is, an individual participant’s enunciation is already collective through the desire with which it is confounded.

There is no separation into levels of representation in this immanent field, only a unity of work, participation, reading and interpretation. Outside of exchange, we are outside of representation (representation of meaning, representation of and for us by the artist), at once subject, object and expression: performative in speech and body.[17] “The fleet of streets, squares, lanes, etc. is sinking deeper and deeper in a network of This Way Brouwns.” Desire saturates the social field in producing it, and that desire is direction (metonymy or displacement in psychoanalytical theory): “I have become direction.” The zones of the body fuse with the social field in this network (metaphor or condensation in psychoanalytical theory): “In the presence at point A, in fusion with point A, in representing point A in the flesh.” A multiplicity of desire is revealed in and as the network: “All direction is being drained from it. They are leading nowhere.”


1. MICHELSON, Annette, “Yvonne Rainer, Part 1: the Dancer and the Dance,” Artforum, January 1974 (New York).

2. Jacques Derrida describes J. L. Austin’s elaboration of the performative as having the following characteristics:
(1) speech acts serve only as the act of communication;
(2) it concerns not the transmission of a thought-content, but the communication of an original movement, a production and operation of an effect;
(3) the act does not have a referent outside itself or prior to it. It does not describe but transforms a situation; and,
(4) it is not predicated on the authority of a truth value, but has the value of a force, of the difference of force. Thus, “the performative is not limited strictly to the transference of a semantic content that is already constituted and dominated by an orientation toward truth.” DERRIDA, Jacques, “Signature Evenement Contexte,” Marges (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1972), pp. 382-383; translated as “Signature Event Context,” Glyph, number 1 (Baltimore), pp. 186-187.

3. I owe to Judith Doyle the clarification of the confusion of document and event at points in my text.

4. BROUWN, Stanley, This Way Brouwn, 25-2-61, 26-2-61, Zeichnungen I, (KöIn: Verlag Gebr. Koning, 1971).

5. MAUSS, Marcel, The Gift, Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans., Ian Cunnison, (New York: Norton, 1967). Cf. BATAILLE, Georges, La Part maudite précédé de La notion de dépense (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1967); Bataille changes the three obligations—give, receive, repay—to give, lose or destroy.

6. LÉVI-STRAUSS, Claude, “Introduction a L’oeuvre de Marcel Mauss,” in MAUSS, Marcel, Sociologie et anthropologie (Paris: PUF, 1950), p. L. “In the system of symbols constituted by all cosmologies, mana would simply be a zero symbolic value, that is to say, a sign marking the necessity of a symbolic content supplementary to that with which the signified is already loaded, but which can take on any value required, provided only that this value still remains part of the available reserve and is not, as phonologists put it, a group term.” And in a footnote to this passage, Lévi-Strauss writes: “Linguists have already been led to formulate hypotheses of this type. For example: ‘A zero phoneme is opposed to all other phonemes in French in that it entails no constant phonetic value. On the contrary, the proper function of the zero phoneme is to be opposed to phoneme absence.’ (R. Jakobson and J. Lutz, “Notes on the French Phonemic Pattern,” Word, no. 2 [August 1949]: 155). Similarly, if we schematize the conception I am proposing here, it could almost be said that the function of notions like mana is to be opposed to the absence of signification, without entailing by itself any particular signification.” Ibid.. Translation from DERRIDA, Jacques, “Structure, Sign and Play,” Writing and Difference, trans., Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 290.

7. “It is certainly this assumption of history by the subject, in so far as it is constituted by the speech addressed to the other, that constitutes the ground of the new method that Freud called psychoanalysis... Its means are those of speech, in so far as speech confers a meaning on the functions of the individual; its domain is that of concrete discourse, in so far as this is the field of the transindividual reality of the subject; its operations are those of history, in so far as history constitutes the emergence of truth in the real.” LACAN, Jacques, “The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis,” Écrits, trans., Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977), pp. 48-49. 8. Of Lévi-Strauss’s structure of the unconscious, Deleuze and Guattari write: “Such a form can serve to define the preconscious, but certainly not the unconscious. For if it is true that the unconscious has no material or content, this is assuredly not because it is an empty form, but because it is always and already a functioning machine, a desiring machine (...)” DELEUZE, Gilles, and GUATTARI, Anti-Oedipus, Capitalism and Schizophrenia (New York: Viking, 1977), p. 186. They also comment on the pathological character of the closed system of prices, and instead examine the primitive economy as a surplus value of code; pp. 149-150. 9. Freud’s 1914 essay, “Recollection. Repetition and Working Through,” relates the value of “working through” as an attention to the act and text of interpretation.

10. BARTHES, Roland, Image, Music, Text, trans., Stephen Heath, (London: Fontana, 1977), p. 10. 11. Cf. Nietzsche: “We have no right to ask who it is who interprets. It is interpretation itself, a form of the will to power, which exists (not as a ‘being’ but as process, a becoming) as passion.”

12. “A collective disposition of enunciation will say something about desire without referring to a subjective individuation, without centering it around a pre-established subject and previously codified meanings.” GUATTARI, “Everybody Wants to be a Fascist, “Semiotext(e), Volume 2, number 3, 1977 (New York), p. 90.

13. “...c’est l’expression qui devance ou avance, c’est elle qui précéde les contenus, soit pour préfigurer les formes rigides où ils vont se couler, soit pour les faire filer sur une ligne de fuite ou de transformation.” DELEUZE, Gilles, and GUATTARI, Felix, Kafka, pour une littérature mineure (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1975), pp. 152-153.

14. Ibid., p. 51. Translation mine. Cf., p. 153: “And it is the one and same desire, the one and same set-up which presents itself as a machinic set-up of content and a collective set-up of enunciation.”

15. “Which point of entry is of no importance, of no more value than another, no entry has a privilege, even if it is almost a dead-end, a narrow tube, a syphon, etc. One only searches by which other point to connect one’s entry, by which cross-roads and corridors one takes in order to connect two points, what is the rhizome’s map, and how it immediately modifies itself if one enters by another point. The principle of multiple entries prevents only the introduction of the enemy, the Signifier, and the attempts to interpret a work which, in fact, only proposes experimentation.” Ibid., p. 7. Translation mine.

16. Ibid., p. 145. Also p. 147: “No machinic set-up which is not also a social set-up of desire, no social set-up of desire which is not a collective set-up of enunciation.”

17. “Collective dispositions of enunciation produce their own means of expression—it could be a special language, a slang, or a return to an old language. For them, working on semiotic flows, or on material and social flows is one and the same thing. Subject and object are no longer face-to-face, with a means of expression in a third position; there is no longer a tripartite division between the realm of reality, the real of representation or representativity, and the realm of subjectivity. You have a collective set-up which is, at once, subject, object, and expression. The individual is no longer the universal guarantor of the dominant meanings. Here, everything can participate in enunciation: individuals, as well as zones of the body, semiotic trajectories, or machines that are plugged in on all horizons... An individual statement has no bearing except to the extent that it can enter into conjunction with collective set-ups which already function effectively: for example, which are already engaged in real social struggle.... The individuated enunciation is the prisoner of the dominant meanings. Only a subject-group can manipulate semiotic flows, shatter meanings, open the language to other desires and forge other realities.” GUATTARI, “Everybody Wants to be a Fascist,” p. 91.


In 2014, in my archives, I discovered a paragraph that I deleted from somewhere towards the end of this article:

“The combination of dialogue and anonymous production, within the social field, as the social field, results in: communication of singular intensities through a dialogical process that attracts an interpretative force; an analytical mechanism that inscribes flows of desire as content and produces the singularity as a difference in forces.”

My friend, the artist Andy Patton, convinced me to delete this paragraph to my chagrin once the article was published. He then went on to title his 1980 Mercer Union exhibition Anonymous Mechanism!