Just More than Zero

Katsushige Nakahashi’s Zero Project (2000 – ) involves a curator leading a group of volunteers in the construction of a full-scale World War II Japanese Zero fighter plane. The construction materials are 25,000 photographs taken from a scale model of the plane. These are held together by a lot of cellophane. Upon completion of the three-dimensional plane, volunteers carry the plane to a lawn or someplace and burn it.1 One might say then, that the work is about war, memory, collective action, healing, fathers, fatherlands, or impermanence. It seems, in no obvious sense, to be about the law—even if, like so much of what we’re pleased to call culture now, it is fully subject to intellectual property law. Unlike Jeff Koons’s work, it has provoked no lawsuits. Unlike Yves Klein’s or Robert Morris’s or Sherrie Levine’s or even Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s work, it incorporates into its self-conscious aesthetic work no legal technology of ownership. These at least make a show of fighting back, of challenging the spread of the property form.

Katsushige Nakahashi, “ZERO PROJECT,” in progress. Material/DIM TK. Courtesy of Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery, Reed College 2016. Photo: TK

The Zero Project even seems somewhat superseded by the recent history of Intellectual Property (IP) law. Once we might have said that Zero resists, even somewhat self-consciously, the material and conceptual features that allow a cultural object to be expropriated from the commons: it is collaboratively authored, comprised of many thousands of photographs taken of the smallest parts of a commercially available model airplane, and destroyed immediately upon completion. But today? Along a number of fronts—from biomedical research to farming to computer code—things that were previously regarded, even by IP law itself, to be common property, have been brought inside the secure fort of ownership. In 2012, Oracle sued Google for copyright infringement involving a kind of technology so common to the daily life and operability of electronic networks that in a networked context it is all but equivalent to communication itself.2 The feasibility and success of cases like this rely on a particular and now naturalized idea of connectivity, one that replicates the connectivity of the internet itself, where every use is a potential theft and every exchange of hands a potential unauthorized reproduction. Replicative but also parasitic, the law’s own connectivity comes to lay itself over the technical infrastructure of a network, making use of its capacity to track and locate.

It will come as no surprise, then, that Zero Project is owned, and is thus legally property. Itwas recently donated to the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery at Reed College as a gift from the Peter Norton Collection. The construction of the plan proceeds but the status of the project is uncertain because the College, thinking no doubt also as a legal entity (with grounds to protect, prospective parents to impress, risks to be managed, lawsuits to be avoided), and in open disagreement with the Cooley Gallery, has been loath to allow the final burn to happen on College grounds. Not because the burn will destroy an artwork it owns, but because the resulting scar left on the college’s property—its real estate—cannot comfortably be integrated into the college’s image, its efforts at self-possession. It’s hardly a stretch to see this act of expenditure and scarification as not just an ancillary and expendable part of the work, but as integral to its most obvious meaning and import. The final immolation is referenced in the first line of the artist’s statement which comprises the first page of the folder new owner’s receive.3 Still, there can also be no thought here that Nakahashi’s work launches its critique at precisely the moment that the owner refuses the full responsibility of ownership. If only. However the plane is sacrificed, it will only burnish the owner’s reputation.

But perhaps, from within this litany of refusal—the various ways in which Nakahashi’s work will fail to subvert the law—the work has the salutary, if somewhat ascetic, effect of pointing out that radicalizing or pedagogical encounters with the law can no longer entertain fantasies of outlaw politics (being outside the law) or of liberal politics (being corrective of the law).

We could bracket questions of authorship or materiality or any of the other features of the property form and consequently notice how the Zero Project is enacted through, but never fully identified with the various activities involved in building the Zero fighter, a set of tasks whose tone and register are hard to place. In its current instantiation in the Cooley Gallery at Reed College, students in collaboration with curator Stephanie Snyder, gallery staff, and anyone else who wants to help, all contribute to the build, photograph by photograph, forensically, compulsively, laboriously, casually, but above all, slowly. There is small talk, shop talk, the small anxieties of collaboration, bossy voices and recessive voices. All enact the project through a conjoined, although never lockstep, cluster of activities whose increments of progress are so small that the more grandiose art-world eventualities of the project are hard to keep consistently in mind.
In this, Zero, true to its name, might mark a transition in aesthetic resistance and in the aesthetics of resistance from defamiliarization through negation to what we now might think of, perhaps with some sense of loss, as disengagement, or as what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney call the “undercommons.” 4 What if, for instance, we took the project, seen in and for all of its miniscule increments and ordinariness, not as representation, model, nor example, but as a contingent and singular, even literal experiment in small group form: an experiment in common labor, in creativity that isn’t concerned with innovation, in non-identitarian commonality, in commitment without attachment (or resignation), in collectivity without scalability—in disconnection along a number of fronts. The project’s property form would then have yielded not to pressure exerted by the representational politics of critique, but will have faded momentarily from view—all from within a structure of ownership that, in the current world, is nevertheless ineluctable. Is there a way to avoid such aesthetic situations today, wherein bifurcated streams of activity run in parallel rather than confront one another by way of critique? If critique now inevitably produces an encounter that materializes a connection, we might need to learn how to inhabit those bifurcations rather than just be relegated to them. 5

  1. Nakahashi has burned the plane in many different ways, and will entertain not burning it at all but detaching from it in another way. The point seems to be less about fire as a specific means and more about the detachment entailed in sacrifice.
  2. “An Application Program Interface (API) is the technology or, more accurately, technical means of communication in question. A quick review of the case: a district court in northern California found that API could not be copyrighted (2012). The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals found that it could (2013).
    The Supreme Court of the United States refused to hear the case (May 2015), in effect siding with the circuit court. The district court judge, Judge William H. Alsup, called the case the “world series of IP rights.” The practical stakes are hard to measure; the symbolic stakes are immense. Google will now argue a fair use defense in a trial tentatively set for May 9, 2016. Despite the boundedness and particularity implied by the proper nouns here, this is not a unique case, nothing so comforting as an exception, though it might once, not that many years ago, have read like a work of absurdist theatre or parodic conceptualism, like Klein selling a zone of immaterial pictorial sensibility.” Tony Dutra, “Switch to Open Source Java Limits Google Copyright Exposure,” January 7, 2016, http://www.bna.com/switch-open-source-n57982065845/ .
  3. That line reads: “To complete the work, the owner of the work above will be required to burn the reproduced piece.”
  4. Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (Wivenhoe; New York; Port Watson: Minor Compositions, 2013).
  5. This essay, among other influences, including my ongoing collaboration with John Paul Ricco on small group form, has also been a way of thinking through Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s amazing book The Undercommons.


Kris Cohen

KRIS COHEN is Assistant Professor of Art and Humanities at Reed College. He writes about the relationship between art, economy, and media technologies, focusing especially on the aesthetics of collective life. His first book, entitled Never Alone, Except for Now (under contract, Duke University Press), addresses these concerns in the context of electronic networks. Projects underway include a study of the relationship between the graphicalized computer screen and laboring subjectivities that looks closely at the work of Morris Louis, Jack Whitten, Joan Jonas, and Charles Gaines, and a longer history of dematerialization seen in its relation to intellectual property law. He is a founding editor and contributor to Open Set (www.open-set.com).