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  • Contracting Justice: The Viral Strategy of Felix Gonzalez-Torres
  • Josh Takano Chambers-Letson

Felix Gonzalez-Torres once described the aesthetic and political strategy behind his art making thus:

At this point I do not want to be outside the structures of power, I do not want to be the opposition, the alternative. Alternative to what? To power? No. I want to have power. It’s effective in term of change. I want to be like a virus that belongs to the institution. All the ideological apparatuses are, in other words, replicating themselves, because that’s the way culture works. So if I function as a virus, an imposter, an infiltrator, I will always replicate myself together with those institutions.1

During the so-called U.S. culture wars of the late millennium, Gonzalez-Torres could have easily been denounced as one of the most pernicious threats to conservative visions of the ideal constitution of U.S. subjects: he was an artist, a Latino (Cuban) immigrant and person of color, queer, HIV positive, intellectual, a feminist, and an unapologetic leftist. Rather than reject power’s rhetoric, which—in the wake of the Reagan revolution—commonly defined the minority subject as a threatening agent of contagion and contamination, Gonzalez-Torres appropriated this rhetoric and the apparatuses of power to transform the limiting conditions of minority subjectivity into a critical condition of possibility and transformation.2 Attempting to stage a kind of counterrevolution to conservative and neoliberal structures of power, Gonzalez-Torres’s work involved a viral strategy meant to infect power in an attempt to bring about greater conditions of social justice.

As curator Ann Goldstein and art historian Miwon Kwon have separately observed, within the voluminous analysis written about Gonzalez-Torres’s [End Page 559] work, and despite the stated variability of meaning in this work, certain critical interpretations prevail. Primarily, the work is celebrated for its “democratic” nature, generosity, interactivity, and evocation of important affects, including loss, hope, love, and longing.3 Critics have often celebrated Gonzalez-Torres’s critical appropriation of institutionally successful art forms, especially the starkness of minimalism and the theoretical foundations of conceptual art, as well as capitalist methods of mass production. Less attention has been given to the revolutionary elements of Gonzalez-Torres’s art making, encapsulated by a viral strategy meant to assume, subvert, and transform the cultural and economic conditions that produce social hierarchy and radical injustice. With the stated intention of assuming power, Gonzalez-Torres’s strategy might be understood as aligned with a Marxian project of taking control of the means of production that reproduce the conditions of capitalist exploitation and (related forms of) structural racism, heterosexism, sexism, and class subordination.4

Gonzalez-Torres’s work called upon spectators to ascribe meaning to the piece through hermeneutic practices that were attentive to the context and spectator’s subjective experiences of the artwork. The artist conceived of his body of work as a living entity, mutable and adaptable to the conditions in which it existed. Understanding his body of work as alive and interactive, Gonzalez-Torres structured his pieces as carriers or hosts infected with the artist’s viruses. These viruses might be otherwise understood as his ideological critique of dominant structures of power, posed to the spectator as he or she engaged with the piece. Through the encounters with a specific piece, then, a spectator also came into contact with the artist’s virus, potentially contracting the virus by engaging with the work and also becoming a carrier of the infection, spreading the virus through the body politic as he or she continued to engage with the political questions posed by Gonzalez-Torres’s art.

The artist’s strategy of viral infection as a means of instigating social transformation resembles forms of progressive legal review in the last century. Indeed, recognizing the law as one of the primary apparatuses within dominant modes of social, political, and economic production, one of Gonzalez-Torres’s greatly undervalued interventions has been his engagement with and appropriation of the law. Thus, in this essay, I will demonstrate how the conception of his work as a living body lines up with a major form of progressive...


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pp. 559-587
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