Art, as David Graeber provocatively suggests in his 2008 essay The Sadness of Post-Workerism , is "whatever we can convince very rich people to buy". In the same piece, Graeber, a leading figure in the Occupy movement, notes that "the production of art is an industry, and one connected to capital, marketing, and design in any number of (historically shifting) ways." Artist James Thornhill and theoretician Fulvia Carnevale, who together make up the Claire Fontaine collective, take a similar stance. In a 2009 interview with Texte zur Kunst magazine, they don’t mince their words about the role of artists today, pointing out that they have become "products and brands. They also note the "shocking abundance" of the "commodity" in the current art world. While candidly admitting that they are unable to "control" or "avoid" this situation, they do emphasise that their work is aimed at "fight[ing]" it.

Claire Fontaine is the name of a French stationery company for office and school supplies. The art collective has appropriated the name to use as their own, subverting the concept of copyright as a means of protecting intellectual property by turning it into a copyleft, as it were. This appropriation subverts not only the concept of property, so crucial to capitalism, but also the no less important capitalist category of the individual consumer and "on demand" consumer satisfaction, by suddenly creating two discrete identities under the same name. The conceptual naming of the collective also harbours a significant art historical reference by phonetically echoing Marcel Duchamp’s legendary readymade Fountain (1917). Claire Fontaine self-identify as "ready-made artists" and put equal value in their output of theoretical writings and artworks. As they explain in their Untitled Text (2005), "Claire Fontaine is nothing but the nth ready-made artist, the nth meaning transmitter in the general buzz, the only difference being that she chooses political impotence as both the means and subject of her work."

The alphabet of political impotence is repeatedly spelled out in the work of Claire Fontaine, for example in 2009 at Art Basel Miami Beach and in 2012 at the Berlin art fair abc – art berlin contemporary , where they presented the phrase "Capitalism kills (love)" (2008) in neon lights. Use of the classic advertising material of neon lighting is characteristic of their practice. In the midst of the lion’s den, at the heart of what Claire Fontaine call "the explosion of the market", they display their criticism of the system boldly and with stylish elegance, as opposed to surreptitiously scrawled graffiti. An already-made protest slogan that by now represents a somewhat clichéd left wing underground rhetoric. At the same time, galleries representing the collective were present at both fairs. A number of obvious contradictions were thus forcefully addressed, particularly that of critique of the system whilst playing the game. As one blogger on asked with both bewilderment and insight, "is being anti-yourself … the new height of political correctness?" But Claire Fontaine’s question is a different one – it is the question of where political criticism can still be expressed today. In the Texte zur Kunst interview, they correctly point out that such criticism tends to be dismissed as lightweight, or even invalid, "if it doesn’t translate to rioting in the streets". Then again, on their website, they describe the tone of the discourse at the art fairs along the lines of: "– How are you doing? – Fine! It’s been a while! Since Frieze … – Oh my God! Are you going to Basel? – Yeah, see you in Basel!". Which begs the question: Is there any point at all in trying to raise political awareness in such an "intellectual" atmosphere?! Having claimed this sentiment of "political impotence as both the means and subject" of their work", Claire Fontaine’s contribution at Art Basel Miami Beach and at abc was entirely consistent with their approach.

Claire Fontaine deploy the concept of the readymade as a means of avoiding "production" in the sense of creating ever more and merely superficially new artefacts. This aesthetic approach lies somewhere between outright refusal, and recycling of ideas, styles and objects, and in this context the collective repeatedly refer to "human strike". A tactic – echoing Michel de Certeau’s well-known definition of the term "tactic", in contrast to "strategy", as "a calculated action, determined by the absence of a proper locus" – that seeks to define the word "production". This tactic of "strike" attempts to liberate both the artwork and everyday life from existing capitalist dependencies. According to Claire Fontaine: "If every social relation extracted from capitalist misery is not necessarily a work of art in itself, it is definitely the only possible condition for the occurrence of the artwork." The collective unequivocally say of artists that "all they need is a world liberated from the social relations and objects generated by Capital." The readymade achieves this by freeing objects from the context of their everyday utilitarian value. The fact that this actually sends their monetary value soaring simply proves that art objects play a lucrative role in the capitalist system. Claire Fontaine demonstrate this process by marketing their art through influential galleries like Galerie Neu, Chantal Crousel and Metro Pictures. And as we have already noted:

failure in the form of "political impotence", is an intrinsic aspect of their art.

Several works by Claire Fontaine are dedicated to the Lehman Brothers investment bank. For example, a group of works entitled Lots 1083, 1084, 1085 (2012) in which enlarged pages from a Christie’s auction catalogue feature various paintings from the bank’s collection. Depicting ships in distress at sea they give an almost all-too pertinent metaphor for the demise of Lehman Brothers, which has become an international symbol of the 2008 global financial crisis. The corporate desk accessory in the 2011 sculpture The Invisible Hand also relates to Lehman Brothers, the readymade having been originally produced for the once flourishing bank. The object is a customised Newton’s cradle – a perpetual motion machine – with metal balls suspended over a miniature tennis court. The word "networking" inscribed on the base commentates appropriately. The title of the work aptly quotes Scottish philosopher and political economist Adam Smith, who described the self-regulatory processes of the capitalist market in terms of the "invisible hand". The repetitive clicking sound of the metal balls in motion evokes a sense of the ever-repeating crises of capitalism.

The Claire Fontaine worldview is a thoroughly pessimistic one, as clearly demonstrated in the 2005 Untitled Text : "The collective subjects that could once raise their voice have lost the words to scream their crisis from the stomach of Capital, which now digests them all and dooms the survivors to die in war. This radical modification of democracy comes as no surprise: power’s totalitarian temptation is in its nature, and it’s never an accident." But such pessimism overreaches its target, threatening to become totalitarian itself. The assumption of naturalised power is in itself worrying. Power, like community, is a social construct after all, not a natural entity, and can be changed. The same might be said of the image of the artist that the text asserts: "Ours is the time of ready-made artists who occupy their place in an incompetent way and only reaffirm their blatant lack of qualities – who have no influence over the cultural apparatus, even less over its political function." As with the idea of naturalised power, the sweeping generalisation that assumes a "time of ready-made artists" excludes other forms of thinking. But is there really no more optimistic worldview on overcoming capitalism? And is there really only one kind of artist – an impotent one – to be found in the early years of the 21st century? David Graeber, for one, sees it differently. And so, with that, my text comes full circle, albeit without resolution. In his essay Against Kamikaze Capitalism , Graeber describes the not wholly unsuccessful Occupy movement in terms of its sucesses, but also – much in the spirit of Claire Fontaine – in terms of the movement’s inability to cope with its own victories. And are there not quite a few artists these days, including the members of Occupy Museum, such as Jonas Staal with his New world summit or Tania Bruguera with her Immigrant Movement , currently having a real impact on the cultural scene and actually influencing the way it works?! At the very least they are pointing out that neither the artistic nor the political field can be reduced to conventional territories like the (commercialised) white cube or the (lobbyist-infiltrated) parliament.

Claire Fontaines neon sign Arbeit Macht Kapital (2012) is displayed in the Italian Embassy in Berlin. The 1939 building, with its fascist architecture dating from the Mussolini era, clearly places the text within the context of the "Arbeit Macht Frei" slogan that the Nazis so cynically inscribed over their concentration camp gates. In this way, capitalism appears to be just as totalitarian as National Socialism. Is it provocative or just a prank? Or does it demonstrate that there is no longer any difference?

Translated by Ishbel Flett

CLAIRE FONTAINE , founded in 2004. Live in Paris. Exhibitions: Redemptions ,
CCA Wattis, San Francisco (solo); Economy , Stills, Edinburgh / CCA, Glasgow (2013); When Attitudes Became Form Become Attitudes , Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit / CCA Wattis, San Francisco; Manifesta 9, Genk; Breakfast starts at midnight , Index, Stockholm (solo); Ma l’amor mio non muore , T293, Roma (solo); Équivalences and Généralités , Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris (solo); 9th Shanghai Biennial; M-A-C-C-H-I-N-A-Z-I-O-N-I, Museion, Bolzano (2012)

Raimar Stange is a critic and curator. He lives in Berlin.