This Is the Reconnaissance. Ideology and duplication in the work of Michalis Pichler
Stefan Ripplinger

There’s duplication in ideological recognition (reconnaissance). There’s duplication in ideological misrecognition (méconnaissance).

When we say “God Bless America,” we have—in most of the language-games (Sprachspiele) where this statement makes sense—recognized an ideological paradigm and duplicated it. When we read or hear “God Bless America” and react (either positively or negatively) to this signal, we have recognized an ideological paradigm and duplicated it.

In art things are more complicated.

If a painting contains the words “God Bless America” or if “God Bless America” surfaces in a poem or a film, or even if the Mothers of Invention sing and play “God Bless America,”[1] then it is we, the ones who see, read or hear it, who recognize the ideological paradigm and duplicate it. Likewise, if a shabby, squashed pizza box that is lying “horizontally, on the pavement btw. sidewalk and frontyard, face-up”[2] with the words “God Bless America” printed in large letters on it, is presented in a documentation, an installation or a book that reproduces this action or installation, then the ideological paradigm is duplicated as well. And yet, it is highly probable that we will misrecognize this statement. It is highly probable that a disruption of ideological reproduction will occur.

The work of Michalis Pichler presents a multitude of fascinating instances of such a disruption. It makes clear that to duplicate an ideological statement is not sufficient to constitute such a statement. If anything, certain duplications may suspend the ideological reproduction.

This disruption or suspension can arise from the duplication itself without becoming a distortion as a result. The duplication needn’t take on the form of a caricature, parody, or satire. Under certain circumstances, it is precisely duplications in caricatures, parodies or satires that reinforce the ideological paradigm (no one has more intensely strived to disseminate emblems of National Socialism than the cartoonist, parodist, or satirist).

This disruption occurs when statements, events, books or pictures are reiterated in a different place at a different time and with a different voice in a different medium. Andrea Fraser’s performances May I Help You? (1991), Art Must Hang (2001), or Men on the Line (2012) come to mind.

Pichler’s New York Times Flag Profile (2003) duplicates each of the 144 images of the American flag that appeared in the September 11, 2002 edition of the New York Times, including everything that was printed in the same position of the flag on the reverse side. The flags were cut out by hand and pasted in the same position as the original on blank pages the same size as the newspaper. Both this sculptural glued-on version and a duplicated, off-set printed version of this work exist.[3] On September 11, 2003, the multiplied version could be purchased in the form of a newspaper in selected newsstands around Brooklyn and Manhattan.

A flag is a powerful ideological signal. Pichler has duplicated this signal in his works and yet simultaneously suspended it. This flows freely from his archaeology of everyday life that embraces “absences / situations in public space.”[4] For a work entitled Stars & Stripes (2002–03), he collected garbage with an American flag printed on it. He then documented the respective location of the trash emblazoned with an American flag, both before he removed the object as a sample and after, in his book Stars & Stripes / new york garbage flag profile (2005).

As such, he displaces statements (in this case, the flag) to a different place and at a different time, but not, however, to another ideology. The political aspect of his art practice results directly from his refraining from all political stipulations. The political aspect consists in exposing the function of ideology. Whenever highly charged ideological symbols from everyday life reappear as quotes in the art world, they reveal their function. It is a conscious duplication that disrupts an unconscious one.

But how should such artistic duplication be analyzed? Three options present themselves: (1) a formal analysis, (2) an aesthetic referential analysis, and (3) a theoretical analysis of ideology. The theoretical analysis of ideology is particularly attractive in elucidating the aforementioned disruptions of ideological reproduction. Nevertheless, it should be first established what differentiates the other approaches from such a theoretical analysis of ideology.


(1) The formal analysis of duplication is primarily concerned with relationships of representation and the fidelity of an image. A relationship of representation can be reduced to mathematical functions. Are we dealing with isomorphism or only homomorphism in the case of an image (in the sense of a function)? The general homomorphic relationship—which assigns for every element of set A an element of set A’, whereby each element of set A belongs to a predicate P, and accordingly, every element of a set A’ belongs to a predicate P’—is the most commonly encountered image in (mimetic) art.

The decidedly most famous depiction of an American flag in art, Jasper Johns’s Flag (1954–5), is a homomorphic image of the standard 48-star American flag in effect until July 3, 1959. Every visual element of the artwork corresponds to a visual element of the original. Yet, they fundamentally differ in their modes of production. A flag’s fabric is either embroidered or printed. Johns, however, first glued a collage of newspaper clippings onto a plywood board and then covered this with a layer of oil paint and heated pigments mixed with wax (encaustic painting). The layer of collage is still visible through the layer of paint. Johns thereby steers the observer’s attention from what is depicted to how it was made and its texture. And yet, he has formally reproduced an extremely accurate depiction of the customary flag at the time using his own methods of production. Size, shape, and even color roughly correspond to the standard flag of the day. P’ corresponds to P.

The photographic and printing methods Pichler frequently uses can be attributed to homomorphic duplication. His New York Times Flag Profile may even be taken as an example of epimorphism, since every element in Pichler’s print corresponds exactly to an element of the newspaper’s original edition but not vice versa. In such cases, mathematicians speak of a surjective function.

Sentences and phrases are particularly suitable for a faithful depiction. Pichler’s point of departure is not, sensu stricto, the original itself, but the masses of reproduced material all over. Nothing can be so easily reproduced as text. Pichler appreciates this when he suggests: “Obviously the painting of a person is not a real person, but the painting of a sentence is a real sentence.” Johns’s Flag is not a proper flag, but Pichler’s New York Times Flag Profile is a proper newspaper and his version of Max Stirner’s Der Einzige und sein Eigentum (The Ego and Its Own, 2009) is a proper book, and both are distributed as such.

By collecting books with misprints or, namely, images that have accidentally been printed twice, Pichler, in his ongoing series Doppelgänger, is even concerned with isomorphism (a comparison with identical misprints) or automorphism (a comparison with itself).

These randomly found readymades, such as zoological works,[5] featuring duplicated images, of for instance beasts of prey, are a natural counterpart to a whole series of works by Pichler with reduplications. Walt Disneys lustige lustige Taschenbücher (Walt Disney’s Funny Funny Pocket Books, 2012) duplicates every page of Donald Duck pocket books, fitting together two identical editions of every edition and recasing them as a bundle. A total of 100 volumes of the popular series have been edited in this manner. More important than this duplication of an available book series is the reduplication practiced here: once a page of the comic has been read, the reader is faced with it again.

Whereas reduplication establishes an internal relationship between the individual elements (pages, images, sentences, phrases, etc.), duplication establishes a relationship between the work and the original being quoted or appropriated. Formal analysis is only capable of abstractly describing these abstract relationships. Its communicative and social implications already belong to the realm of aesthetic reference.


(2) A consideration of aesthetic reference emerges from the imminent field of the work and considers the relationship between work and world. As we saw, this applies to the relationship between a reproduced flag and a real flag, between an edited Donald Duck pocket book and a commercially available one, etc. But this can be extended to a relationship with works of other artists.

Whether making reference to Mel Bochner or Marcel Broodthaers, Ed Ruscha or Seth Siegelaub, or comparing his flag piece to Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1974/5) or the Non-Sites of Robert Smithson, Pichler’s oeuvre is tremendously rich in art-related references. In Rosler’s piece, 45 photographs of a poor neighborhood are juxtaposed to a series of words describing drunkenness; and Smithson’s Non-Site “is a three dimensional logical picture that is abstract, yet it represents an actual site (…).”[6] By publicly reading the text fragments from the reverse side of the flags of his edited newspapers, Pichler has furthermore aligned his work with Conceptual Writing.[7]

Aesthetic reference[8] can also investigate art historical relations that the artist didn’t intentionally produce. Through argumentation or association, it can establish a reference in Pichler’s flag piece to Johns’s Flag or the radical political art of the late 1960s and early 1970s (such as The Flag is Bleeding by Faith Ringgold in 1967 or the ritual flag burning on November 9, 1970 by the Guerrilla Art Action Group).

Due to the different perspectives of different viewers, the question concerning reference can only be answered pragmatically (in a ternary relation): artwork A for viewer B refers to an object, to an idea, to a person C.

Even when the artist himself attempts to establish or repel references, it is not the case that he always succeeds. By emphasizing artistic technique, Johns, for instance, hoped to direct the appreciation of his flag away from political reference towards its production. This however has not prevented his flags as being interpreted as flags (i.e. as references), which, consequently, first met with resistance and then approval. As Arnaldo Testi has established, the Flags were “the last resort, or the fig leaf, of ambivalent and blasé patriotism. They are used by those who want to join in some national patriotic solidarity; but with a certain tone, a certain distance.”[9]

Due to its pragmatic dimensions alone, aesthetic reference cannot be limited to the realm of art history. References arise at will. They are built into objects, ideas, and people external to the work and art in general.

In this context, aesthetic reference also investigates how an object or element that remains (more or less) unchanged in an artwork obtains a new ontic, social and communicative status. It investigates the differentiation between a flag in public space and an artwork. In short, it investigates the status of quotation. Is a patriot obliged to honor and salute a flag when it’s only being quoted? When it is, for instance, shown in a theater production or a film, when it has been painted or used in an installation?

In February 1989 American patriots were confronted with such matters of conscience in front of Dread Scott Tyler’s installation What is the Proper Way to Display the U.S. Flag? in the Art Institute of Chicago. “The work consists of a collage of photographs of flag burnings and coffins wrapped in the flag. The collage is hung on the wall, and underneath it is a shelf with an exercise book and pencil; visitors are invited to write their answers to the question of the title. A Stars and Stripes serves as a carpet in front of the shelf; in order to write, one is forced to tread on it and therefore desecrate it or to avoid it with some contortions.”[10]

It became illegal to step on the American flag on July 4, 1968 when President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the first federal flag desecration legislation. “It provided fines of up to one thousand dollars and one year in jail for everyone who ‘knowingly’ cast ‘contempt’ upon ‘any flag of the United States by publicly mutilating, defacing, defiling, burning, or trampling on it.’”[11] However, on June 21, 1989, just some months after Scott’s installation in February, the Supreme Court released Gregory Lee Johnson from a one-year prison sentence, appealing to the First Amendment. Johnson—who, like Scott, was a member of the Revolutionary Communist party—burned a flag at a 1984 demonstration just outside the Republican National Convention in Dallas.

Although Dread Scott’s installation was not prohibited, thousands of people protested against it. And one such form of protest proves particularly interesting for aesthetic reference: every day protestors entered “the exhibition, picked up the flag, folded it ceremoniously, [and] put it back on the shelf.”[12] Thus, they made no fundamental difference between the duplicated flags in the installation and those used ceremoniously. Only a theoretical analysis of ideology can provide information about their motives.


(3) The theory of ideology withdraws from the realm of artworks, art history, and the ontology of art altogether. It examines the relationship of a subject to a community, whereby a subject is constituted as a subject only through the community. The individual already establishes a relationship to the ideology of a community when he hears the name given to him; and thus becomes a subject (sujet). During this procedure the subject answers to a hailing (interpellation). One could say: the subject duplicates certain sentences and behaviors, appropriating them. Following Louis Althusser’s formulation, this duplication is called recognition (reconnaissance).

Althusser’s schema of ideological recognition is itself a duplication, namely, of the famous L-schema (schéma L[13]) of Jacques Lacan. As a reminder:


S                                                          a


a’                                                        A


The subject S recognizes and constitutes itself in another (a, autre), for instance in a mirrored image, and consequently deduces an image of itself (a’, moi). It also sees itself as being recognized by a big Other (A, le grand Autre) that isn’t the same as him. This big Other is an abstraction of a contingent series of Others (A1, A2, A3 ...), which together produce the symbolic order of the community. The power of symbolic language is established through this Other.

Now, if A (ideology, language) acts upon S (the subject), then S continually attempts to appropriate itself in the imaginary relationship of a to a’, for instance, and also to translate what it is confronted with into images of itself. This is the recognition Althusser means and which the subject has to execute to be a part of the community. This process is ubiquitous, the subject is engulfed in ideology.[14]

Althusser’s structure incorporates multiple mirrorings and duplications: “We observe that the structure of all ideology, interpellating individuals as subjects in the name of a Unique and Absolute Subject is speculary, i.e. a mirror-structure, and doubly speculary: this mirror duplication is constitutive of ideology and ensures its functioning.”[15]

The Unique and Absolute Subject is nothing other than A, the grand Autre of Lacan. Neither formal nor aesthetic referential analysis is of use for the mirrorings and duplications effectuated in this process. For, the duplication does not depend upon the object. Nor does it depend on the object’s references. It only depends upon whether the subject can execute the recognition.

The language-games (Sprachspiele) the viewer participates in are crucial not only for the perception of Pichler’s works on ideology and social or urban situations. Is the viewer a curator, an art historian or art critic; and does he thus approach this work through the language-game of art? Or is he a layman, a political subject, confronting the work in the language-game of politics? It may be assumed that whoever approaches the flags with previous knowledge of art history will first perceive the rich art-specific references. But for those who aren’t familiar with these, the political and ideological references will presumably announce themselves first. Suppose that such an observer is hailed to these flags. If he’s a patriot, then looking at them might activate a moral dilemma: “Are these flags serious? And if they aren’t, then don’t I have to take them seriously for that very reason?”

The question must remain unanswered. The observer must pose it himself. For, as we have learned from Althusser, only the reaction of the interpellated matters and not the intention of the interpellator. Pichler’s book Sechsundzwanzig Autobahn Flaggen (Twenty-six Highway Flags, Frankfurt a. M., 2006) makes this clear. In this book, black, red, and gold flags and pennants (from the Fifa World Cup in 2006) can be seen on the highway, its shoulder or median, blown off the cars they were attached to by the airflow. The flags and pennants were photographed from a moving car.

This book thrusts two conflicting interpretations on the naïve viewer, both of which ascribe untenable and in effect absurd intentions to the creator of this work. Since the photos were very clearly only taken to retain the pennants, it would seem the photographer was drawn to them, or rather, hailed by them. At the very least, he imitates the behavior of an obsessive patriot interpellated by these traces. He is either a über-patriot who wants to pull the flags out of the muck or he is an anti-patriot who wants to demonstrate how irrelevant the flags are since they’re lying in the muck and no one is caring for them.

In face of the dichotomy concerning the author’s intentions, the viewer is given the opportunity to consider the contingency of his own ideological interpellation. Why does one intentionally react to unintentionally scattered signals? Why react at all? The viewer can thus recognize that interpellation depends solely on him and that he manipulates himself. Certainly, this manipulation is caused by a strong social necessity; and he manipulates himself even if he vehemently denies the signals. He is interpellated.


In May 2003, the Daad (German Academic Exchange Service) exhibited the group show Mehr Licht (More Light) in the Goethe-Institute in New York. There, Pichler presented his aforementioned collection of street garbage bearing the Stars and Stripes, namely, new york garbage flag profile. Instigated by BrunelliNeri Productions Ltd., who had rented the institute’s rooms for a high society reception, Pichler’s installation was removed against his firm resistance. This sanction’s justification was “above all, the fear of the business world to cause injury to supposed patriotic sentiments of the clientele.”[16]


Even if the organizers, who needn’t personally be patriotic, in this case only feared negative reactions from rich patrons, it brings us full circle. For, the negative reaction cannot be ascribed to how the flag was duplicated (that is, to the formal criteria) nor solely to the references the work is making. This reaction has much more to do with an ideological process. An ideological process which occurs whenever a subject recognizes ideological content and thus feels interpellated by it.

At the same time, Pichler’s documentation in the aforementioned book Stars & Stripes / new york garbage flag profile demonstrates a thought-provoking transformation: if the American flag is printed on pizza boxes, coffee cups, newspaper pages, etc. then this evidently exerts a stimulating and reinforcing effect on the patriotic buyer. If the flag-decorated packages are publicly mutilated, defaced, defiled, burned, or trampled upon, then it isn’t regarded as desecration, since it isn’t the flag itself but only an image, a duplication of a flag that has been publicly mutilated, defaced, defiled, burned, or trampled upon. If, however, such disfigured flags are exhibited—in a secondary, quoted doubling—then patriots find it difficult to accept.

By isolating ideological triggers from their familiar contexts and transmitting them without commentary, New York Times Flag Profile and Sechsundzwanzig Autobahn Flaggen demonstrate a contingency and constructedness of ideological transference as well as the possibility for misrecognition (méconnaissance).

As such, they remain deliberately ambivalent. A politically unequivocal work debasing flags and icons could only be classified as a different ideology. Pichler’s work grants the possibility to discern the mechanics of ideology itself. Even if this subject is an “animal idéologique,”[17] he continually succeeds in observing its making of man. This is, for instance, the case when man’s duplication of ideology becomes discernable as duplication.


Translated from the German by Shane Anderson


[1] The Mothers of Invention, “God Bless America,” in Uncle Meat, Bizarre 1969.

[2] Michalis Pichler, new york garbage flag profile, (Frankfurt: Revolver, 2005), n.p. The author refers to this book as Stars & Stripes. For this reason, the book will be called Stars & Stripes / new york garbage flag profile in the following.

[3] The artist has edited the New York Post, New York Newsday and Village Voice in the same fashion. The installation new york garbage flag profile described below also belongs in this context. The artist has also used the Soviet star, German flag and hearts in a similar fashion.

[4] Michalis Pichler, e-mail messages to the author, July 27, August 1, 2014.

[5] For example: Erich Tylinek and Otakar Štĕpánek, Bilder aus dem Zoo, trans. Otilie Utitzová, 3rd ed. (Prague: Artia, 1957).

[6] Robert Smithson, “A Provisional Theory of Non-Sites,” in Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1996), 364.

[7] Fundamental for Conceptual Writing: Kenneth Goldsmith, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing,” Open Letter 7 (2005), 108–11.

[8] The fundamental issues of aesthetic reference are discussed in Christine Montalbetti, Le voyage, le monde et la bibliothèque, (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1997) as well as in Anna Whiteside and Michael Issacharoff, eds., On Referring In Literature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987).

[9] Arnaldo Testi, Capture the Flag. The Stars and Stripes in American History, trans. Noor Giovanni Mazhar (New York, London: New York University Press, 2010), 122.

[10] Ibid., 125.

[11] Marc Leepson, Flag. An American Biography (New York: Thomas Dunne, 2005), 233–234. German law is substantially more rigid. The current German Penal Code, StGB § 90 a, includes prison sentences “up to three years” or fines for every person whosoever “insults the colors, flag, coat of arms or anthem of the Federal Republic of Germany or one of its states.” If “efforts against the continued existence of the Federal Republic of Germany” can be proven, then this prison sentence is increased up to a total of five years.

[12] Testi, Capture the Flag,  125.

[13] Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 180.

[14] This is illustrated by Pichler’s Kunst als Ideologie (Art as Ideology). In this edition, segments from existing books have been blacked out. Thus, all of the words besides “Ideologie, ideologisch” (ideology, ideological) and “Kunst, künstlerisch” (art, artistic) have been blacked out from the chapter about art and ideology in the textbook Zur Theorie des sozialistischen Realismus (Berlin/GDR, 1974). There is only art or ideology.

[15] Althusser, Ideology, 180.

[16] Martin Morcinek, “Kunst und Kunden. Zensur im New Yorker Goethe-Institut?,” Amerikawoche, June 9, 2003.

[17] Louis Althusser, “Philosophie et marxisme. Entretiens avec Fernanda Navarro (1984–1987),” in Sur la philosophie (Paris: Gallimard, 1994), 70.

Ripplinger, Stefan, "This Is the Reconnaissance. Ideology and duplication in the work of Michalis Pichler," ().