Variant issue 43    back to issue list

Ethics and the political efficacy of citation in the work of Santiago Sierra
Ellen Feiss

In his essay ‘Signature Event Context’, Jacques Derrida utilises J.L. Austin’s definitive theory of the “performative utterance”1 from ‘How to Do Things With Words’.2 That “utterance which allows us to do something by means of speech itself”3 interests Derrida; a speech act which does “not designate the transport or passage of content of meaning”4 but in itself enacts an event, provides an entry point through which to break down the conception of speech, and therefore communication, as it is defined within Western philosophy.5 By destabilising the institution of communication, Derrida contests the understanding of meaning as a fortified entity transported from speaker or author to listener or reader, in order to undo the notion of the conscious intention of the speaking subject as the central force in language. However, more specifically, it is what Austin expressly excludes from his definition of the performative utterance which presents Derrida with a framework for recasting speech as constituted through its citationality, or “iterability”6, rather than tied to the context of a speaker.

Austin’s strict definition of the performative utterance requires the “conscious presence of the intentional speaking subject”7 and a laundry list of historically contingent regulations in order for the “successful”8 performative utterance to come into being. Austin contends that the “successful” or the “serious” performative utterance is its only form. For example, the historically contingent ‘I do’ speech act in a marriage ceremony is a performative utterance for Austin only when it is between two consenting people, and its success further demands that the subject not be “already married with a [spouse] living, sane and undivorced.”9 Austin specifically excludes those utterances outside the conditions of intention and context that don’t result in social constitution. He precisely states that performative language in “circumstances (where it is) intelligibly used not seriously but in ways parasitic upon its normal use… All this we are excluding from consideration”10 (my emphasis). That Austin renders those failed performative utterances outside the terms of his argument – a “possible risk” in all performatives, as he highlights them as a constant structural possibility – is significant. In contrast, Derrida resurrects these utterances which Austin casts off as failures11 and establishes them as spoken citations; indications of a “general iterability”12 without which the “successful” performative wouldn’t be possible. Derrida uses Austin to extrapolate his notion of iterability by illustrating both forms, the serious and non serious utterance, as citational. 

I restrict my discussion of Derrida to ‘Signature Event Context’ in order to use his analysis of Austin’s original conjuring of the stage and the fictional in his definition of the parasitic utterance, or the non-serious. The conception of audience and the context of the stage in Austin’s examples of fictional exclusion are crucial in my application of iterability to art. I exclude other theorists’ use of the parasitic and its fictional backdrops, specifically John Searle, because of my exclusive reliance on iterability – I don’t engage at this point with debates surrounding the legitimacy of iterability but instead move forward with the concept as a core pillar.13 I use ‘Signature Event Context’ in tandem with Judith Butler’s concept of performativity to describe artistic utterances that hover between statement and embodiment. To clarify, Derrida’s iterability reaches beyond my restriction of it to the success and failure of utterances. Rather, the term serves to account for the role of the speech act within a notion of language as socially constituted, as part of Derrida’s larger project of deconstruction.14 Iterability as a process of alteration, accounting for the way in which meaning is unbound by context and infinitely transmutable, as opposed to an account that emphasises context and linguistic conventions in the service of individual intention, is bound up in Derrida’s notion of the non-serious but is not confined to it.15

Derrida’s establishment of the serious and non-serious utterance16 as co-dependent linguistic structures, reliant on each other in the creation of meaning, presents a paradox. What of the event that embodies both the serious and non-serious performative utterance? The excavation of such an event offers a method for analysing the self-referential nature of power in late capitalism, that utterance which acknowledges the terms of its constitution while simultaneously acting. Significantly, iterations of the serious and non-serious event have been employed in contemporary art practice since the post-war period as a mode of critique, from Claes Oldenburg’s storefront to the institutional critique of Andrea Fraser. This article seeks to question the dissident potential of this framework in art by considering the work of Santiago Sierra. The ethical and political consequences of Sierra’s work have been debated for over a decade, most significantly, perhaps, in Claire Bishop’s pioneering essay ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’. However, the performative utterance I attempt to illustrate is a conceptual mechanism through which the binary of ethics that Sierra’s work is often trapped in (ie, is the work damaging or necessary artistic transgression?) can be transcended. Furthermore, I seek to reconsider the question of citation and political potency: is it possible to use the language of power in critique? How does one assess the political potential of a cultural strategy of resistance that utilises the hegemonic structures it seeks to dismantle? As well as drawing on Derrida, I will look to Judith Butler’s incarnation of iterability17 in order to establish a new framework for understanding the consequences of Sierra’s work.

Further definition of serious and non-serious utterances is needed, particularly in establishing them as necessarily materialised enterprises. Austin’s specification of the non-serious, when an utterance is “intelligibly used not seriously”18, implies a conscious and purposeful usage of the performative utterance out of context. These incorrect contexts are listed as “said by an actor on the stage, or if introduced in a poem, or spoken in soliloquy.”19 Austin deems the “non-serious” as contextualised within the staged medium, or indeed any form that indicates fiction. This not only serves to undermine the ability of those contexts to enact social landmarks, but additionally, it connotes the “non-serious” as being necessarily experiential and as always having an audience. While Derrida’s central problem with Austin’s argument is his reliance on “the conscious intention of the subject”, I wish to highlight that the conscious mis-use of performatives alternatively indicates that intention can be part of the larger societal process of iterability.20 Derrida does not disagree with intention playing a role in language as long as the process of iterability, as a process outside the consciousness of individuals, is understood to be responsible for the production of that language, requiring that conscious intention should no longer be understood as the central governing force in language.21 As such, Austin’s non-serious ‘staged performative’ becomes the performed citation; the referencing of speech said or written elsewhere. This, performing the non-serious utterance is both an unconscious and conscious act with performers embodying an unconscious medium of the iterable process whilst knowingly, and consciously, reciting a script.

The non-serious is a transparent speech act, as its conditions foreground language as necessarily circulated and constituted through repetition. Derrida chooses the performative utterance as an entity which, through its non-serious manifestations, provides windows onto the iterable process. Conversely, Derrida describes the serious as a ‘statement event,’ experienced as having a status of singularity and understood (incorrectly) through the intention of the speaker. The serious utterance can thus be understood as invisible through naturalisation, concealing the processes by which language is constituted, and the non-serious as necessarily that of repetition as it is, in part, knowingly performed.

Judith Butler moves the concept of the materialised citation onto the realm of the body, through her definition of gender “performativity”22, an analysis which uses Derrida’s iterability to deconstruct sex and gender categories. Recognising the process of iterability as a force of hegemonic power, “the citational practice by which discourse produces the effects it names”23, Butler’s performativity is fundamental to an understanding of iterability as “materialized”24 and as a tool of social control. In terms of importing Butler’s analysis into the terms of the serious and non-serious, “naturalized gender”25 can be understood as the serious and the non-serious as those acts which “reflect on the imitative structure [iterability] by which hegemonic gender is itself produced”.26 Butler understands the “reiteration” of gender as a process that fundamentally includes “instabilities” and that it “mark[s] one domain in which the force of the regulatory law can be turned against itself”.27 Butler further establishes such instabilities – the politicised non-serious – as having the potential for the revolutionary use of the “alterity”28 of citation and a fundamental ability to deviate from, while also reflecting the original. The potential for critique in Butler’s “non-serious” is conceptualised as gender parody, specifically practices of drag, which situates Austin’s specification of the utterance used “intelligibly not seriously” as one in revolt. This is not to say, however, that certain subjects are not constituted through the involuntary process of iterability, or interpellation29 in the case of Butler’s performativity. Just as it was the case that under Derrida’s account all utterances were subject to iterability, for Butler, all subjects are gendered through that “very regulatory law”.30 Derrida’s allowance for intention requires that while a subject’s intention is not completely void in speech, it is no longer the central axis. The same is true in Butler’s evocation of drag: where the intention in these events could be seen as palpable, it does not undermine the larger structure of performativity. Rather, as a non-serious entity, drag can only be comprehended in relation to the “serious” normative categories of gender and the overarching process of performativity. Butler is clear that in drag, and it is possible to infer that in all citational parody, “there is no necessary relation between drag and subversion” and that “drag may well be used in the service of both the denaturalization and the reidealization of hyperbolic heterosexual gender norms.”31 In establishing the non-serious as potentially political, but not structurally subversive, Butler’s drag can be appreciated as a crucial tool for evaluating instances of the non-serious in other critical cultural practices.

The definitional capabilities of the stage, and its accompanying relationship of speaker and audience, are a structural component in Butler’s understanding of the serious and non-serious. In her analysis, both serious utterances of gender and non-serious “instabilities” are physically materialised, however, staged qualities are structurally necessary for recognition of the non-serious as a citation. In her analysis of Paris Is Burning (1991) – Butler’s central discussion of drag – it is precisely because “drag pageantry”32 is watched by a live audience that the non-serious is articulated. The audience within the film reads the pageant, judging each performer in terms of the success of their impersonation by a degree of “realness”.33 Attaining realness is the ability of a performer to successfully dissolve the artifice of their own performance, or any indication of non-serious qualities, and seamlessly become, for example, a “bangie, from straight black masculinist culture”.34 The judging audience and the performer together evoke the non-serious, creating a literal runway where the serious utterance, a successfully “real” impersonation of a straight black male, for example, is recognised as a citation. The necessary context of the non-serious, then, is on the stage and in the mouths of Others, revealing that recognition is a foundational component of citation. While the serious (in the case of Butler, hegemonic gender) also requires performance for constitution, as a normalised occurrence, its viewing is not announced. The stage of the non-serious is what marks it as such and, as in Paris is Burning, the naming by its audience is also what establishes it as citation. The gaze of the audience, Butler reminds, is “structured through those hegemonies” and, therefore, through “the hyperbolic staging of the scene”35 the non-serious is born, or, in fact, witnessed.

An “ambivalent”36 politicisation of the audience is articulated by Butler as the audience being “drawn into the abjection it wants to both resist and overcome.”37 While Butler is discussing an audience with a specific “abject”38 identity, the ambiguous political potential of the non-serious that she describes is applicable to citational events more generally. The non-serious is often interpreted as universally subversive, a citation that is, therefore, a critique of the norm, where a closer reading could prove otherwise. If “realness” is an example of the dual event, the enactment of the serious as a non-serious project, a similarly complex combination of utterances should be read in other citational mobilisations.

Guy Debord’s “integrated spectacle” argues that the serious and non-serious event is a powerful tool in service of liberal democratic hegemony. Here, it is clear that the dual utterance is not only an occurrence in (sub)cultural39 activities. Rather, the integrated spectacle contextualises Butler’s reminder of the reinscription of power as a possibility in citation, in terms of late capitalist strategy. The stress Butler places on the precarity of citational subversion, the possible reinscription of power, is expressed by Debord’s integrated spectacle as not solely a possible outcome but a method of expanding capital’s frontier. The integrated spectacle is a form of power that “has integrated itself into reality to the same extent that it is describing it, and that it was reconstructing it as it was describing it.”40 Understanding manifestations of the non-serious and their ‘description of reality’, as a re-establishment of the serious (the hegemonic) highlights the power of description to integrate power. Contemporary art practice is one method of description and given the art market’s inseparability from global capitalism, its practices of integration operate with much at stake. Santiago Sierra’s “ethnographic realism”, or his art “actions” which “form an indexical trace of the economic and social reality of the place in which he works”41, can be understood as an incarnate of the serious/non-serious utterance. He enacts a labour contract which cites its own construction in capitalism. In terms of the logic of the performative utterance however, can the context of Sierra’s work be localised, as Claire Bishop suggests through the “indexical trace”? As he is replicating the same power dynamic42 in each city he is invited to work in, hiring cheap labour, Sierra is, rather, providing a view into the construction of the impoverished subject. This non-serious gesture pries at a process much larger than local economies, while at the same time excavating local realities both for aesthetic definition as well as in a serious utterance that is not as “ephemeral”43 as Bishop concludes in ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’. Like the integrated spectacle, Sierra’s work reinscribes an abusive power relation by describing it, in an iteration that garners power through the embodiment of the labour contract, contextualising performativity as a process which similarly constitutes the identity of the worker. For the performer-workers in The wall of a gallery pulled out, inclined 60 degrees from the ground and sustained by five people (2000) or Twenty-four blocks of concrete constantly moved during a day’s work by paid workers (1999) they perform acts of manual labor that utilise their bodies as any “real” contract would, albeit in the ‘wrong’ context of the art institution. Bishop points out that Sierra’s critics quickly summarise his work as illustrating the “pessimistic obvious: capitalism exploits”.44 She is right that the work is more than that. Like the mixed utterance of the ball queens, that expression of subscription and simultaneous defiance, Sierra’s work is a complex interrogation as well as a proliferation of the processes of capital it deals in. As in the drag pageant, some utterances are more resistant and others more complicit.

Sierra created a living map of the racial and class based exclusions of the Venice Biennale, evoking a sense of role reversal for viewers of Persons Paid to Have Their Hair Dyed Blond, (2001). This work astutely references the systematic oppression of whole populations by liberal democracy, which the art world is a part of, as Bishop rightfully points out.45 Bishop describes feeling implicated by this piece in the processes of economic exclusion that structure society, noticing the unsettlement of her self-identification at the fair because of the inclusion of the street vendors. “Surely these guys were actors? Had they crept in here for a joke?”46 The unsettlement of identity, in this case one of elite cultural belonging and financial privilege, is what the successfully denaturalising serious/non-serious utterance sends out in rippling waves. Other variations of Sierra’s practice though have yielded what Butler described as the “reidealization” of norms. Ian the Irish (2002), involved Sierra paying an Irish street person to stand outside a gallery in Birmingham, England, repeating, “My participation in this piece could generate a profit of 72,000 dollars. I am being paid 5 pounds”.47 An instance of integrated spectacle, this dual utterance serves only to echo a relation of inequity. While attempting a citation, this event fails to activate a non-serious relation to its audience, as the street person remains naturalised: in a familiar position, soliciting passersby on the street. Serving up the obviously pessimistic, in a form which does not transcend the serious labour contract it enacts. The same is true of 160cm Line Tattooed on Four People’ (2000). As both an unusual and aggressively exploitative project, Tattooed avoids a non-serious reading as an un-placeable utterance, rendering viewers either appalled48 or non-plussed, such as Bishop when she referred to it as “ephemeral,”49 which even its title disproves. Its formal relationship to minimalism adds a dimension to the exploitation of bodies as part of the history of art, but confuses the labour relationship it references. Therefore, Tattooed cannot be seen as citation. Lacking “realness”, like a bad drag performance, it has gone too far.

The serious/non-serious utterance can be described as parasitic, in revival of Austin’s original term, to both its conflicting ends. Either it is a hegemonic parasite, burrowing deeper down new pathways, or it is a counter insurgent, attaching itself and poisoning the vital internal system of power relations. At the end of ‘Bodies That Matter’, Butler addresses this relationship by asking: “How to know what might qualify as an affirmative resignification – with all the weight and difficulty of that labor – and how also, to run the risk of reinstalling the abject at the site of its opposition?”50 Sierra’s work puts this question to task with much at stake, namely intensifying contemporary complicity in the degradation of Others and, as Butler will come to in later writings, their precarious lives.51 Looking forward, Butler notes the mutual, “unstable and continuing condition of the ‘one’ and the ‘we’”, or as humans we are all “used by, expropriated in” language together, “the ambivalent condition of the power that binds”.52 Sierra’s work implicates both the I and the We, to variously parasitic ends. The reinscription of power occurs. But alternately, like Bishop and the whole of the Biennale that Blond (2001) year, an entire community can be rearticulated through such an utterance.

Sierra’s work illustrates that the political potential of the citation as always a potentiality, and that strategies of resistance open themselves up to failure every time they import the language of power into critique. This risk however, is structural to the citation’s critical efficacy. As the activation of the audience is the dissident potential of the citational utterance, this effect can only be aimed for and not preemptively guaranteed. The risk of not being recognised, as in the case of some of Sierra’s labour contracts and for any variable reason not affecting viewers subversively, is inescapable, structural to the citation and cannot be accounted for. As an event without a ‘successful’ formula to appropriate, I would argue it is one of the more potent strategies available in cultural critique. In terms of evaluation, each instance of the serious and non-serious utterance must be analysed individually, with an eye to the activation of the audience; the impact of Sierra’s work cannot be appropriately addressed when viewed as a whole. In light of this risk, Sierra’s work operates through an ethics of pragmatism rather than of drama or shock. He puts into play citation after citation, as few will succeed.


1 J. Derrida. ‘Signature Event Context’. Margins of Philosophy. (Chicago: University of Chicago P, 1982.) p321.

2 J.L. Austin, How To Do Things With Words, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.)

3 J. Derrida. ‘Signature Event Context’. Margins of Philosophy. (Chicago: University of Chicago P, 1982.) p321.

4 ibid., p321.

5 Earlier in the essay, Derrida deconstructs the primacy of speech over writing in Western philosophy, see pp309-321.

6 Derrida’s concept of the potential for citation as a structural necessity of language. Iterability equals ‘repetition/alterity’, p317.

7 J. Derrida. ‘Signature Event Context’. Margins of Philosophy. (Chicago: University of Chicago P, 1982.) p322.

8 J.L. Austin, How To Do Things With Words, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.) pp8-9 qtd. in J. Derrida. ‘Signature Event Context’. Margins of Philosophy. (Chicago: University of Chicago P, 1982.) p323.

9 J. Derrida. ‘Signature Event Context’. Margins of Philosophy. (Chicago: University of Chicago P, 1982.) p323.

10 ibid., p325. In the text Derrida italicises seriously and parasitic and signs J.D. I am doing the same, to draw attention to another aspect of Austin’s quote.

11 ibid., p324. Derrida notes Austin’s creation of a success/failure opposition.

12 ibid., p325. Or a ‘general citationality’.

13 Furthermore, Searle’s notion of the parasitic utterance as reliant on the non-serious intention of the speaker or writer isn’t useful for my analysis and instead serves Searle’s description of literature, namely metaphor. Towards an analysis of contemporary art, I use Austin and Derrida’s deconstruction of Austin, and the definition of the parasitic as the product of abnormal context. See: J.R. Searle. Expression and Meaning: Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

14 Derrida utilises the non-serious because it is the central exclusion of Austin’s argument, the exclusion for Derrida being a necessary mechanism in metaphysical thought. Derrida’s conception of the “trace” and his work on absence and presence in ‘On Grammatology’ and ‘Writing and Difference’ are important precursors to iterability and together, form a more complete picture of Derridian deconstruction.

15 Searle’s critique of ‘Signature Event Context’ elucidates the latter claim, that language is tied explicitly to context and intention and iterability is the process by which linguistic conventions are repeated, across contexts. I do not enter into much of Derrida’s debate with Searle, instead taking Derrida’s conception of iterability to task uncontested. 

16 In this essay, the serious and non-serious will be used without quotations to signify the use of them as terms outside the context of ‘Signature Event Context’.

17 Specifically, Butler’s discussion of drag and its precariously subversive potential in Bodies That Matter: On The Discursive Limits Of ‘Sex’ (New York: Routledge, 1993.)

18 J.L. Austin, How To Do Things With Words, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.) pp8-9 qtd. in J. Derrida. ‘Signature Event Context’. Margins of Philosophy. (Chicago: University of Chicago P, 1982.) p323.

19 ibid., 324.

20 Derrida’s response to Searle in Limited Inc. provides further elaboration on the role of intention, and its limits, in iterability. In Reiterating the Differences, Searle understands iterability to be the “necessary presupposition of the forms which intentionality takes,” and therefore, iterability solely constitutes the meaning of linguistic conventions, which are then applied uniformly across contexts. Iterability provides the tools for the individual speaker to load with meaning. Rather, Derrida clarifies that iterability is both the basic presupposition for the creation of meaning, and the creator of meaning itself, that which continually fragments meaning through repetition. See: J. Derrida. ‘Limited Inc a B C ...’ and ‘Summary of Reiterating the Differences’ Limited Inc. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1988. Print.

21 J. Derrida. ‘Signature Event Context’. Margins of Philosophy. (Chicago: University of Chicago P, 1982.) pp326-327.

22 J. Butler. Bodies That Matter: On The Discursive Limits Of ‘Sex’ (New York: Routledge, 1993.) p2.

23 ibid., p2.

24 ibid., p2.

25 Hegemonic expressions of sex and gender, where the iterable structure of gender construction is rendered invisible.

26 J. Butler. Bodies That Matter: On The Discursive Limits Of ‘Sex’ (New York: Routledge, 1993.) p125.

27 ibid., p2.

28 J. Derrida. ‘Signature Event Context’. Margins of Philosophy. (Chicago: University of Chicago P, 1982.) p317. ‘The essential iterability of communication (repetition/alterity)’.

29 “Interpellation is the constitutive process where individuals acknowledge and respond to ideologies, thereby recognizing themselves as subjects.” ‘Interpellation’. Index. 12 Nov. 2011 <>.

30 J. Butler. Bodies That Matter: On The Discursive Limits Of ‘Sex’ (New York: Routledge, 1993.) p2.

31 Ibid., p125.

32 J. Butler. Bodies That Matter: On The Discursive Limits Of ‘Sex’ (New York: Routledge, 1993.) p128.

33 ibid., 129. Butler defines realness as “a morphological ideal”. “What determines the effect of realness is the ability to compel belief, to produce the naturalized effect.” Ibid., p129.

34 ibid., p129. 

35 ibid., p132.

36 ibid., p124. “Ambivalent” is Butler’s term to describe drag as not always subversive, but rather containing both “a sense of defeat and a sense of insurrection”. Ibid., p128.

37 ibid., p132.

38 Butler uses abject to signify the construction of bodies outside the norm. “Given this understanding of construction…it is still possible to raise the critical question of how such constraints not only produce the domain of intelligible bodies, but produce as well a domain of unthinkable, abject, unlivable bodies.” Butler, xi. 

39 Sierra’s work and the art world more generally cannot be considered a subculture, whereas drag as a practice is connected to a specific queer subculture.

40 Guy Debord. Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. (London: Verso, 1998.) p9.

41 Claire Bishop. ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’. (October 110 2004: 51-79) p70. Available at: And Liam Gillick’s response, ‘Contingent Factors: A Response to Claire Bishop’s “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics”’, is at:

42 The same power dynamic but different outcomes of oppression dependent on the city. As Bishop notes “immigration, the minimum wage, traffic congestion, illegal street commerce, homelessness”. ibid., p72.

43 Claire Bishop. ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’. (October 110 2004: 51-79) p70.

44 ibid., p71.

45 ibid., p73. Referencing her own discomfort at the 2001 Venice Biennale at the inclusion of illegal street vendors in Sierra’s piece, Bishop clearly articulates “Sierra’s action disrupted the art audience’s sense of identity, which is founded precisely on unspoken racial and class exclusions”.

46 ibid., p73.

47 Katy Siegel and Paul Mattick. Money: Art Works. (London: Thames & Hudson, 2004.) p77.

48 “Sierra has attracted tabloid attention and belligerent criticism for some of his more extreme actions, such as 160 cm Line Tattooed on Four People (2000)”, Bishop p70.

49 Claire Bishop. ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’. (October 110 2004: 51-79) p70.

50 J. Butler. Bodies That Matter: On The Discursive Limits Of ‘Sex’ (New York: Routledge, 1993.) p240.

51 J. Butler. Precarious Life: the Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso, 2004. Print. In which Butler considers the relation to the Other after 9/11. In relation to my concluding paragraph, her call for ‘imagining interdependency’. Ibid., xii-xiii.

52 J. Butler. Bodies That Matter: On The Discursive Limits Of ‘Sex’ (New York: Routledge, 1993.) p242.