Empire in Different Colours (see catalog) was an exhibition and temporary research room over two months in Spring 2004 at Ludwig Museum Budapest. The exhibited artwork (the Empire installation) and documents reflected on the book entitled Empire by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt (Harvard University Press, 2000) and invited the audience as well to reflect on it. The research station installed beside the artistic work consisted of A4 format printed readers put together by the artist. One of the readers were made up by print outs of different webpages contaning documents, critical essays and reviews on Empire. Another reader contained studies by curators and art historians (also printed out from the web) who made refference to or used quotations from this book, in their writings about art. A third one contained different texts by and interviews with other authors dealing with issues connected to the process of globalisation and the role the US plays in it. The research corner was equiped with an internet terminal where people could make further explorations, and a photocopy machine which they could use for free to take home copies of the documets.  

Why a show on this book?

Empire, yes, but I have to say I found it hard to read. I under-stood only parts, and what I understood seemed to me pretty well known and expressible much more simply. [...] You can make things look complicated, that’s part of the game that intellectuals play; things must look complicated. You might not be conscious about that, but it’s a way of gaining prestige, power and influence.1
Noam Chomsky

Empire was one of those interdisciplinary treatises that tried to address the most stinging problems of the globalizing world at the turn of the millennium. At the same time, this was the book, which, unlike others of its kind, produced an enormous butterfly effect within the world of art, soon after its publishing. Around the year 2002, when I saw people in the art world praising and quoting Empire at a rate that approached the number of quotations of Foucault, Deleuze or Borghes in similar writings and talks on art, I realized that I was dealing with the new “super-text” for contemporary art theory and exhibition praxis.2

Having read the book, I engaged in small discussions about it with my fellow artists and art theorists. To my great surprise, it turned out that people in fact were speaking with religious respect about a book which they themselves had never, or just partly read. With a few exceptions, they had clearly positive opinions about it, which sharply contrasted my rather negative evaluation of the writing. As for me, I was not dissatisfied with the topics discussed by the authors. They are my favorite ones. Nor was I put off by the authors’ supposed political engagement. I fully share, for instance, Hardt and Negri’s claimed uneasiness about neo-liberalism and neo-conservative populism gaining increasing terrain worldwide. What I found extremely problematic about the book, though, was the enormously self-contradictory character of the language and the strategy of argumentation of the treatise, which in my view renders dangerously unstable its intended message.3 Already at the level of the book’s rhetoric, there is a contradiction, which makes one’s relation to the text fairly problematic. For Empire, while calling for a critical approach on behalf of the reader, in fact never seriously offers itself to such a dialogue. On the contrary, with its often messianic and prescriptive intonations, it demands a devotional approach on our part and inspires us more often to “follow” than critically reflect. Hardt and Negri’s text invites us to argue, and at the same time it strives to seduce us to consent. The result is a peculiar kind of intellectual and emotional paralysis, which I would call an “attitudinal numbness” that one can experience when trying to relate to the writing.

Social scientists often criticized Empire on basis of similar judgments. For instance, Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, two political scientists, have described Empire’s case as follows:

Only the most ungenerous of reviewers could fail to admire the ambitious scope of their [Hardt and Negri’s] attempt to integrate history, philosophy, sociology, culture, and economics with a politics from below. And yet, the end result is a most frustrating book: full of promise but also of inconsistencies, self-contradictions, flights of exaggeration, and gaps in logic.4

One of the general problems the reviewers more often had with Empire was the way it relates to empirical reality. Giovanni Arrighi formulates his opinion about this aspect of the book in a very straightforward way:

Most problems arise from Hardt and Negri’s heavy reliance on metaphors and theories and systematic avoidance of empirical evidence. While many readers will undoubtedly be taken in by the erudition deployed throughout the book, more skeptical readers will be put off by statements of fact unbacked by empirical evidence or, worse still, easily falsifiable on the basis of widely available evidence.5

Timothy Brennan, has identified some serious errors already at the level of Empire’s conceptual apparatus and its method of argumentation. In one of his critical essays written on the book, called The Italian Ideology he notes:

The problem with the conceptual conflations has less to do with syntactical matters than it does with the fact that Empire operates in terms of an interstitial logic. It plays in the theoretical registers of plausible deniability. [...] Within this conceptual noman’s land (the non-place that is their new place), the authors can never be reproached for leaving out history, or for liquidating opposition by assuming their opponent’s forms, since the ready riposte can always be that the reader has merely misunderstood; the commitments of meaning are by nature ambiguous in their strategy of “indirection”.6

The citing of critical remarks could be continued for some time.7 Many of the critics of Empire have something to reproach about the accuracy of Hardt and Negri’s analysis. Even more reviewers show their strong disagreement with the book’s conclusions, most of them doubting the feasibility of what Empire “promises” concerning the future.8

Now, looking at Empire’s reception in the art field, one can remark that this critical evaluation of the book was much less present, especially in the so-called mainstream discourse on contemporary art. Most of the debates on the book took place in the more intimate public sphere of artists’ mailing lists and within university seminars.9 Meanwhile, the more common trend was to simply adopt Empire as a dominant text, as a “bible” on which smaller or bigger players in the art field would rely and to which they could refer, in order to confirm their own ideas and actions. And this seems to really count when we consider the bigger players. For Empire not only served as a source of some “positive inspiration” for those professionals who held the highest positions in the “art’s administration” at that time. Empire, I have to emphasize, was in fact used by them as the main source of theoretic legitimation for their professional choices and decisions, which choices and decisions have shaped the face of mainstream contemporary art in the folowing years and keep influencing it even today.10

Basically, there were two kinds of slightly different attitudes towards Empire, which are still dominant in the world of art today. On the one hand, one can see a very militant kind of approach to the book, the practicants of which do not seek to question the validity of its text at all. On the other hand, there is a more bohemian attitude, the adepts of which believe that overemphasizing the visionary and utopian potentials of Hardt and Negri’s book will help us to pardon its insufficiencies in terms of theoretic consistence and historical faithfulness. Just as if in their view Empire was not a theoretical and philosophical text, but an artwork. A judgment which, however, under-estimates and misinterprets how art generally uses fiction and utopia. It is well known that art almost always opens up fictional or utopian spaces in order to project there an imaginary picture about some kind of reality (be it the image of the present, past or, why not, a prospective reality). But art – at least in its best occurrences – so to speak, lies just in order to tell the truth. Art doesn’t just simply flee reality. Art rather leads its audience from one reality to another, which means it engages with both the experienced and the constructed. Consequently, to say that an art piece is generally de-tached from the reality to which it refers, in the way Hardt and Negri’s text proves to be detached from the historical, social, political or economical reality that it claims to describe, would be truly unfair towards art.

Ultimately, what could be the conclusion of this embarrassing story? While the book was received so critically in academia, it has nevertheless become a fetish in the art world. But its fetishization can be justified neither by its theoretical strength, nor by its engagement with the reality to which it claims to refer (as confirmed by social scientists). It can neither be enjoyed as art, nor can it be used as practical guidance for social action. Its real strength lies in its prophetic feature.

Then, the only question left is: why should we artists be followers of prophecies? And this remains a question, even when we are advised by our most immediate teachers, the art theorists and our most immediate commissioners, the curators of art exhibitions, to follow them.


1 http://www.dominionpaper.ca/chomsky/2003/08/31/the_virtua.html
2 See, e.g., the record number of references to Empire made in the introductory essays of the Documenta XI catalogue.
3 “In certain ways it’s a very self-contradictory book, which is a good thing, I think.” – declared Michael Hardt, himself, about Empire, in an interview with Ognjen Strpic. See http://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-0205/msg00127.html. This self-contradictory aspect was, however the source of the multitude of spectacularly divergent interpretations of the book. Some of the reviewers went so far as to say that Empire, despite its claimed radical leftist engagement in fact welcomes the triumph of global capitalism. See, e.g., Rosa Moussaoui’s interview with Slavoj Žižek in: L’Humanité, 04.01.2006 (http://www.humanite.presse.fr/popup_print.php3?id_article=821161) or Takis Fotopoulos and Alexandros Gezerlis: „Hardt and Negri’s Empire: a new Communist Manifesto or a reformist welcome to neoliberal globalisation?” (http://www.inclusivedemocracy.org/fotopoulos/brdn/vol8_2_2.htm).
4 Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin: “Gems and Baubles in Empire” in: Debating Empire, Verso, London and New York 2003, p. 52.
5 “Lineages of Empire” in: Debating Empire, p. 32. Giovanni Arrighi is an author included by Negri and Hardt among those who – in their words – “prepared the terrain for their analysis”. Arrighi’s The Long Twentieth Century (Verso, London and New York 1994) was extensively cited on the pages of Empire. In Lineages of Empire, among other things, Arrighi also comments on how his earlier assessment of an “emergent condition of world rule” has been “reassessed” later by the authors of Empire and used as one of the central theses of their book.
6 Timothy Brennan: “The Italian Ideology” in: Debating Empire, p. 108. In another, more comprehensive study by him on the book, entitled “The Empire’s New Clothes”(Critical Inquiry, No. 29, 2003) he uses another highly elucidating formulation referring to Hardt and Negri’s general method of argumentation: “Their toolbox approach to an analysis of global sovereignty can thus contain tools that more resemble a magician’s wand, and the authors’ statements can simultaneously hold or not hold, pleasing all parties invested in affirming the interrogative statement.”
7 See, e.g., a list of links to reviews published online by Samir Amin, Gopal Balakrishnan, Takis Fotopoulos and Alexandros Gezerlis, etc., at: http://www.freeweb.hu/perimedia/empirelinks.htm.
8 See Giovanni Arrighi’s quoted essay (Lineages of Empire, p. 33), in which he simply questions the verity of a number of statements of the book: For instance, after quoting a number of relevant figures referring to the subject matter in question, he concludes: “Hardt and Negri’s assertion of an ongoing supersession of the North-South divide is thus clearly false. Also flawed are their assertions concerning the direction and extent of contemporary flows of capital and labor. [...] These are not the only statements of fact in the narrative of Empire that, on close inspection, turn out to be false.”
9 See an example at the aut-op-sy mailing list archive at:
10 Consider that Empire was the book which provided the fundamental ideas for the basic conception of art exhibitions of the scale of Documenta XI, as it was acknowledged by Documenta XI’s director, Okwui Enwezor, himself (see at: http://www.kunstbuchhandlung.de/katalog/ltheo/ltheo-1064595.htm). An exception to this rather general trend, worth mentioning, was the prominent art historian and art philosopher Boris Groys, who expressed his univocally critical opinion of Hardt and Negri’s book. See, e.g., his intervention in a public seminar documented in Concepts on the Move, Rodopi B.V., Amsterdam– New York 2002, p. 65 (=Lier en Boog. Series of Philosophy of Art and Art Theory, volume 17).

See a description of the printed version of the catalog at publisher's site

See more pictures about the installation

List of links


In the same year (2004) another artistic evaluation of Empire was created. A 7 minutes video with the title: A Walk Through Empire. This piece can be regarded as a corrective reading of Negri and Hardt's book.The video consists of a double narrative. Moving picture and „moving” text are alternating in continuous succession during the whole piece. On the one hand, the viewer is confronted with excerpts from the original text, chosen through the fairly particular method of following with the camera an innocent being – an ant – who walks through the pages of the book and leads the viewer to read somewhat automatically the words that are included into the frame. These words constitute themselves into sentences and eventually they make up a little discourse... On the other hand from time to time moving images interrupt the walk of the ant. They form a parallel narrative to the verbal flow and seem to respond to the enunciations „found” in the text. These episodes are actually very short video recordings of anecdotic scenes of the everyday street life, shot in different cities around Europe and the US.

watch the video "A Walk Through Enpire"
stills from the video
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