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"informe" (formless)

Art is concerned with form. (Visual shape is a metaphor for conceptual form.) But in the course of the twentieth century, this very notion (form) has become suspect. This situation creates an interesting challenge for the visual arts: to find a form for formlessness, to show the form that has no form. Below we list some of the forms of formlessness that have been explored.

[Note that one may plausibly try to find the form of formlessness at the level of methods and procedures rather than at the level of individual objects. Then it gives rise to process art and chance art. Or one may give up altogether, and embrace nothing or destruction.]

forms of formlessness






georges bataille: "l'informe"

". . . un terme servant à déclasser, exigeant généralement que chaque chose ait sa forme. Ce qu'il désigne n'a ses droits dans acucun sens et se fait écraser partout comme une araignée ou un ver de terre. Il faudrait en effet, pour que les hommes académiques soient contents, que l'univers prenne forme. La philosophie entière n'a pas d'autre but: il s'agit de donner un redingote à ce qui est, une redingote mathématique. Par contre affirmer que l' univers ne ressemble à rien et n'est qu' informe revient à dire que l'univers est quelque chose comme une araignée ou un crachat."

Georges Bataille: "Informe." Documents 7 (December 1929), p. 382.

Bataille's definition posits the formlessness of the world as implying its intrinsic worthlessness as well as the unredeemable futility of our thinking about it. He uses the notion of "form" in an abstract, philosophical sense which is at best obliquely related to the notion of visual form –– but his evocative visual metaphors resonate strongly with a certain strand in the art of Dada and Surrealism which is exemplified in works by Francis Picabia, Man Ray, Raoul Ubac, and Jacques-André Boiffard.

An important contribution to the psychology of formlessness which relates directly to Bataille's suggestions, is Sartre's discussion of viscosity in the penultimate chapter of L'Être et le Néant (pp. 690 ff.).


Georges Bataille: "Informe." Documents 7 (December 1929), p. 382. [Reprinted/translated in: Bataille 1970, p. 217; Bataille 1985, p. 217; Bois & Krauss 1996, p. 6.]

Georges Bataille: Oeuvres Complètes I. Paris: Gallimard, 1970.

Georges Bataille: Visions of Excess. Selected Writings, 1927-1939. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.

Yve-Alain Bois & Rosalind Krauss: L'Informe. Mode d'Emploi. Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1996.

Rosalind Krauss & Jane Livingston: L'Amour Fou. Photography & Surrealism. Washington, DC: The Corcoran Gallery of Art. New York, NY: Abbeville Press, 1985.


In many cosmologies (from the ancient Greek "Kaos" through Kant to the current "big bang"), formless stuff constitutes the primordial beginning of the world, and thus carries no negative connotations at all. Nevertheless, sentiments of futility and meaninglessness do not have to spring from anti-scientific preconceptions such as Bataille's. One can easily find scientific propositions which imply the ultimate uselessness of everything. A good example is the second law of thermodynamics, which states that all isolated physical systems evolve toward a statistically uniform state. This seems to predict that complete boringness is the fate of the universe. This part of modern physics constitutes the background for many pieces by Robert Smithson in the 1960's.


research projects about formlessness

(1) [Systematic Art History.] Above we classified the forms of formlessness in terms of some existing notions of natural English, and we identified prominent art-historical instantiations of these notions. Investigate the conceptual dimensions which underly this classification. Also include categories that we did not mention so far (e.g.: soup, goo, jelly, pudding). If possible, find significant examples of these categories.

(2) [Algorithmic Art.] Based on the results of (1), write a stochastic generative grammar for descriptions of "formless art" pieces, and implement it. Stochastic parameters should include
randomness, diversity and fluidity. Note that formal regularities are excluded at the topmost level of structure, but not at embedded levels.

(3) [Theory of Algorithmic Art.] Discuss the idea of a formlessness-grammar and its relation with the idea of a "grammar for everything".

Order implies restriction; from all possible materials, a limited selection has been made and from all possible relations a limited set has been used. So disorder by implication is unlimited, no pattern has been realised in it, but its potential for patterning is indefinite. This is why, though we seek to create order, we do not simply condemn disorder. We recognise that it is destructive to existing patterns; also that it has potentiality. It symbolises both danger and power.

Mary Douglas: Purity and Danger. An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966, p. 94.
Quoted in: Joseph Kosuth: The Play of the Unmentionable. London: Thames and Hudson, 1992.

remko scha 2005/2006