the-walking-dead-zombie-season-6I am not one of the 17 million who watch The Walking Dead, because the last time I was interested in zombies was when I was 17 and went to the midnight screening of George Romero’s cult film Night of the Living Dead. In that film, the divide between humans and flesh-eating zombies is clear. But it’s interesting that one of the premises of The Walking Dead is that it’s hard to figure out who is more dangerous – the zombies, or the humans who have to survive among them. And that seems an apt metaphor for the political landscape today. American liberals are terribly worried about the rightward turn since the last election. They view Trump-supporters as zombies of sorts. But they should start worrying about themselves.

134305Let’s start with how the over-emphasis on presidential power is absolutely fine for liberals and Democrats as long as one of theirs is in office, but not so good otherwise. And vice versa. Did you love it when Obama signed his executive orders (and he signed more than any of the three presidents before him did), but you’re not so happy with Trump’s capacity to do so? These orders were different in substance, of course, but in both instances they are scary signs of the breakdown of democratic structure.  Same thing with gaming the Supreme Court, btw, which underlies presidential selections for liberals. There are so many cases received by the Supreme Court where the Right-wing judges want to turn the case over to the legislature. Liberal Supreme Court judges don’t tend to argue this way, because as the country shifts ever more to the right (even during the Obama years, from the top down), liberal judges know they have their work cut out for them. As Chantal Mouffe pointed out decades ago, the over-dependence on the judiciary in a democracy is a sign of the breakdown of the legislative branch. AKA the breakdown of democracy. The fight against corporate power has mostly played out in the courts, and it’s no coincidence that just recently the Koch Brothers helped to write legislation to limit class-action suits. It’s not like the Right hasn’t noticed that liberals have for decades sought out the judicial loophole to the breakdown of the legislative branch. What could possibly go wrong…?

You might have loved fetishizing the President when Obama was in power. It was certainly easy for liberals to fetishize the symbolism of the first black American president (at the expense of looking soberly at his actions). But those eight years and the fetishization of Bill Clinton at an earlier time (not to mention that of Ronald Reagan, who has been invoked as a model by Republicans and, inexplicably, increasingly by Democrats, including Obama) helped to legitimate the current fetishization of Trump by his “base.”

vertical-zombiesThe other day I listened to a podcast about journalism in the age of Trump, and heard centrists (sometimes called “liberals” in the US, but more increasingly referred to as centrists) talk about this country’s evident turn toward facism. It is no longer easy for smart centrists to ignore the fact that Trump  (or what he symptomizes) did not arise overnight, no longer easy to ignore the suffering taking place among the 95% in the U.S., many of whom are among the 63 million who voted for Trump. But it’s still verboten to use the actual word capitalism, so even the most politically overt speaker (a prominent magazine editor) could only refer to the more genteel stand-ins for the word capitalism – currently “de-industrialization” and “globalization.” As if such conditions are inevitable natural events that humans could not have opposed. But such overt discourse would puncture the superficially repressed fact that most if not all American liberals actually believe in the delusional dream of neoliberalism. How otherwise to explain the reluctance to even use the word capitalism, or to even refer to the inevitability of capitalism’s very dependence on globalization and de-industrialization?

nightofthelivingdead4-100415Speaking of which, Derrida had extremely interesting views on the term globalization, a term he refused in favor of mondialisation. I first read about this in his interview about 9/11, published in 2003 in the book Philosophy in a time of Terror. But for an excellent synopsis of his refusal of the term, read the first four paragraphs on this link 

You’d have to say that with his attention to such differences, Derrida was the anti-centrist. Personally, I’ve always been more afraid of centrists than of the Right. Because centrists, they walk among us. And they seem so nice.

trump-tower-blogThe night of the election, I went to bed before the final results were in. By that point, Clinton was down to a 50% chance of winning, so I thought I’d spare myself the gory play-by-play. But every hour or so after falling asleep, I lurched awake with my heart in my gut, thinking “Maybe Clinton squeaked through,” or “Oh my god, Trump is President.” Finally, at 4am, I picked up my phone to check and saw the anguishing results. I had had to hold my nose to vote for Clinton, but Trump’s triumph foretold unspeakable disasters.

Still, in spite of the sickeningly surreal confirmation that this country had elected a mentally unstable, reality-TV star whose onscreen role was to fire people, and whose discourses and actions included misogyny, sexual assault, racism, ethnic hatred, and financial deregulation favoring only the super-wealthy – in spite of this, within days it seemed to me clear that the election of such a person was not surprising, and would have happened four years from now if it hadn’t happened now. And let’s be real, a Cruz win – other than, maybe, regarding the question of the nuclear button – would have been equally harrowing. Say what you will about the popular vote favoring Clinton by 2 million votes, she wasn’t running to be president of New York, California, and Massachusetts, the only states where she picked up the great majority of her popular vote margin over Trump. (Trump won many, many states by large margins). She was running to be president of the whole country and Democrats completely underestimated the mass economic precarity and inchoate anger against dysfunctional government that drove large numbers of people to support a demagogue who did not represent their interests. And I’m not talking about the educated and moneyed Republicans who voted for him. Liberals can delude themselves that Trump was elected only by white racists and misogynists, but by doing so they conveniently overlook the fact that many counties and states that were won by Obama in 2012 went to Trump (i.e. the same voters), and that there were many indicators during the campaign that the white “working class”- in areas that had traditionally voted Democratic, and were suspended in the abyss created by globalization and automation -were going to shift to Trump. According to the NYT, for example, “The Wyoming River Valley of Pennsylvania voted for Mr. Trump. It had voted for Mr. Obama by double digits.” “Youngstown, Ohio, where Mr. Obama won by more than 20 points in 2012 was basically a draw.” “Counties [along Lake Erie] that supported Mr. Obama in 2012 voted for Mr. Trump by 20 points.“ “In Iowa, which Obama won easily in 2012, Trump easily prevailed. Trump won Maine’s second congressional district by 12 points; Obama had won it by 8 points.” And so on. Salaries for those up to their mid-30s have declined – accounting for inflation, which is always underreported in the US – by 36% since just 2008. And labor statistics don’t even account for the middle-aged who are unemployable and unable to collect unemployment benefits. 42 million Americans currently don’t have enough to eat every day. If it wasn’t going to be Trump in 2016, it would have been a demagogue equal to him in 2020.

But this is just a preamble to posting something here about an event that I attended the other night at the Miguel Abreu Gallery, in which Alain Badiou was asked by Abreu to respond to a presentation by the two men I think of as “the accelerationist guys” – Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (an American and a Brit who both teach in London, and who in 2013 published “#Accelerate. Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics” that addressed earlier positions by Nick Land and Benjamin Noys on the destructive drives of Capitalism, its effects on its subjects, and its potential for self-destruction. 2015 saw the expansion of the Srnicek/Williams text into an updated book entitled Inventing the Future.

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I wasn’t able to stay for the discussion that followed the presentation by Srnicek and Williams, and Badiou’s critique of their positions, but I feel that Badiou’s critique and proposals are so important for the present situation that they merit the dissemination that this blog platform provides. Because relatively modest as is my readership, I would guess that it’s pretty much made up of just the sort of people who should have heard Badiou’s points – left-oriented people who are eager, if not desperate, to figure out how to develop effective resistance to Trump specifically, and to the general relentless march to the political and economic right that we’ve witnessed in the U.S. (and other parts of the world) since the Reagan years.

When I was first led to read “#Accelerate” in 2013, I was excited at the prospect that someone was writing about the dissipation of left movements, and ways to strategize more effective resistance. But the Futurist-like arrogance, or coldness, of the tone and some of the ideas and omissions quickly put me off. I let it go without much thought or hope.

Much of the presentation made on the 22nd by Srnicek and Williams was of that ilk also, although their beginning analysis of the current effects of neoliberalism in the U.S. and some European countries was sound. Here were some of their points:

  • Neither the Right nor the Left were prepared for 2008 or 2016. Trump, and Theresa May in the UK, are symptoms. They are pragmatic opportunistic responses to the crisis and despair produced by a jobless “recovery,” the destruction of unions, job automation, etc.
  • There is a crisis of governing in Western Democracies. Technocratic forms of government have arisen in countries like Italy and Greece. In the UK, there is an unelected leader.
  • The dysfunction of government has given rise to conspiracy theories and false-news reporting.
  • Trump and Brexit represent a crisis of fear. Clinton and the anti-Brexit vote were just about supporting the status quo. This is the face of the failure of neoliberalism.
  • Trump and May reject aspects of neoliberalist support of free trade and open borders. They choose the border over trade. But finance still travels freely and observes no boundaries.
  • Trump talks about stimulus – but this is not a Keynesian stimulus. It’s giveaways to corporations.
  • The Trump rhetoric is fascistic and white nationalist.

Contradictorily, they went on to say that Trump’s victory was clearly not about white working class suffering, because the black working class had suffered more (the unspoken point being that they largely voted for Clinton in spite of having suffered more). The white working class vote for Trump, according to them (and according to many American liberals, as far as I’ve seen) was a vote to resist the loss of white privilege. This was a very odd argument by them, or at the least a very unsubtle argument, since statistics as shown above prove a complex situation in terms of what motivated the white working vote for Trump (as well as for 29% of the Latino vote). At the very least, it’s obvious that whatever reservations Black voters had in supporting Clinton (and they did not turn out in historically significant numbers), one cannot blithely assume that their suffering would not have pushed them to a different kind of authoritarian demagogue promising unbounded economic recovery, while actually supporting only corporate power – one that might have been clever enough not to instrumentalize racism. To me, this kind of conveniently packaged thinking is belied by the utter lack, in the two long presentations made by Srnicek and Williams, of any reference to Trump’s dire misogyny. Another degree of illogic arose in their critique of current or post-2008 forms of resistance to neoliberalism. For them, resistance has taken the following ineffectual forms:

  • Defensive stances of trying to hold on to what we have within neoliberalism, even as wealth gets more and more concentrated at the top.
  • Defensive resistance does not result in a different future, not even in the possibility of envisioning a different future.

Although they were critical of the Occupy movement and its offshoots for having had no significant program and for being ineffective in combatting neoliberalism, they praised the Black Lives Matter movement, and even the Standing Rock resistance. I suppose this was because they had stated programs? Certainly they weren’t supporting them for their effectiveness in terms of results. Again, no mention of equivalent feminist or LGBTQ forms of resistance.

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Srnicek and Williams made four clear demands that they felt were the only ways to deal with this moment of neoliberal breakdown in relation to what, for lack of a better term, I would call the 95% of the world:

  • A world without work [WWW]
  • Full automation, which would facilitate a world without work
  • A Universal Basic Income, which would facilitate left political development, among other advantages.
  • The elimination of the work ethic.

They also added that one way to start to achieve these four was to create a four-day workweek. They ended their presentations with a question about whether neoliberalism was just in crisis or had already broken down completely, and indicated that it was not completely knowable at this moment, but that it had probably broken down completely.

Then it was Badiou’s turn to critique these arguments as laid out in their newly issued book. What struck me right away was the humanity of Badiou’s response, his consideration of the human subjects of the proposals at hand.

While he agreed with some of the Srnicek and Williams critiques of neoliberalism and ideas, he was deeply critical of the starting point of their argument and proposals.

His initial objections were to the categorical idea that defensive resistance was totally useless at this moment. For Badiou, there must be movements of different kinds across subjectivities, containing differences AND strong commonalities.

Srnicek and Williams had emphasized the essential need for envisioning a new kind of future. Badiou agreed that a new positive vision must unify people, and articulated the need for the creation of a new common sense in place of today’s kind of resistance. He invoked Gramsci, and referred to Mao’s ideological preparation of public opinion. To put it in my own words, mass demand for a new vision of the future wasn’t going to come without an effort to create commonalities amongst the marginal.

But the real critique began when he stated his objections to Srnicek and Williams’ three demands (WWW, Full automation, UBI):

  1. These ideas are not a real possibility (just like utopian communism). They’re too abstract. What is work, Badiou asked? It’s not just about money. Work is the global relationship of humanity fighting against nature to survive. This cannot be suppressed by full automation. Automation, in any case, would create other forms of work that were unimaginable before.
  2. The end of work is not good news for the billions of people who roam the world looking for work today. Even if a WWW is the future, that is in strong opposition to present suffering. A WWW is a western ideaHe invoked the condition of millions in Africa, for example.
  3. It’s better to propose the drastic diminution of the workweek to 20 hours. Badiou pointed out that this was an old, but still a good idea to generate jobs for the chronically unemployed.
  4. The idea of a WWW is not clearly in opposition to Capitalism, an opposition that is defined not by a “we” per se, but by the end of private property. This was one of his major critiques of the book. As he put it, “I am suspicious of the complete lack of an argument against private property in the book.” Maybe even more importantly, he pointed out, the book begins as though we are already beyond Capitalism. Private property, private ownership – that is the HEART of the matter. And he stated with sobering emphasis that Capitalism would prefer a world war to giving up private property. To go beyond Capitalism is not an abstract argument. It is THE challenge itself. The current distribution of wealth is more oligarchic than  monarchic. It will take dire conflict to overturn this.
  5. With regard to the demand for full automation, Badiou asked why Srnicek and Williams thought that full automation would actually benefit workers, when the ownership of automation and its profits would still be held by the powerful minority, who would not easily give up those profits.

What must be done, Badiou asked, before we resort to a future world war to abolish Capitalism? Strategy cannot be reduced to a vision of the future. Strategy must include judgment about what is possible NOW. Movements are a necessity. They say that what seems impossible is possible. This doesn’t always involve a program, but the possibility to experiment in the current situation at the border of what is impossible and what is possible. Resistance formation allows for the development of what is possible.

Badiou then stated four principles for developing resistance. These were not a program, but what he called protocols of judgment regarding decisions to be made for the development of strategic programs for resistance, for displacing the limit of what is impossible to what is possible:

  1. Demonstrate that private property is neither necessary, nor a law of humanity. Emphasize collectivism.
  2. Reduce the workweek drastically. Demonstrate that the specialization of labor is not an eternal law. That is, suppress the opposition and hierarchy between intellectual and manual labor. It is a false opposition; physical labor should not be disdained.
  3. Equality must exist inside and across differences. Affirm that difference must exist across equality. Demonstrate that boundaries between differences are not eternal law.
  4. It is not a necessity that a state exists as a separate and armed power. Following Marx, the people can determine themselves collectively. Free association against the state.

And he closed his critique by stating that when collectivities developed programs for resistance, if all of these four principles were not included, then the program should not be developed.

As someone who takes a very holistic view of resistance, whose feminist activity– for example –is never without an analysis of power of all kinds – economic, racial, ethnic, gendered, this seems to me a very fruitful way to move forward in what is a new moment of crisis for the great majority of the world’s inhabitants. But I would add a fifth principle to Badiou’s four. Any program that does not recognize the dynamics of the human psyche, particularly in regards to fearful phenomena – its mechanisms of displacement and projection, for example – will never be able to generate collective engagement toward the common good, and will always be susceptible to being led by self-interested demagogues.

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In the run-don’t-walk cultural category of my new short-form recommendation postings is the BBC One 6-part miniseries, River. (available in the U.S. on Netflix.)

It’s hard to describe succinctly how brilliant this series is. It’s an addictively compelling whodunit with layers of social, economic, racial, historical, and psychical significance. The sad thing is that I cannot imagine such a series being written, produced, or acted like this in the U.S.

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I’m beginning to think this country is just too “young” to produce such work. Not that the U.S. is that young a country. But its deepest and longest history is of native population extermination-which this country is barely willing to acknowledge in its school curricula, or its public – or private – discourses. And with that repression goes nuance and subtlety in representation. Now, nuance and subtlety are just plain old entertaining (for many of us). But they’re also essential  to digging ourselves out of the political mire that we in the U.S. are now drowning in. This moment of political demagoguery and economic exploitation cannot be comprehended in simple terms. Don’t be fooled by consolingly ironic tweets to the contrary.

The unearthing of repression, and the American amnesia around its founding violence, are reasons why Louise Erdrich’s latest novel, LaRose, is also so important. Both River and LaRose, worlds apart in many ways, are similar in many regards. They understand that events are never absent of psychical histories. And that the past will always return – for good or bad, depending on how we deal with it.

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Postscript, 10/6/16- The wheels of my unconscious grind exceedingly slowly. I just realized that the temporal structures of River and LaRosa are very similar- always through a montage of past and present. River can make more clear- with visual devices to its advantage- that, as Alain Resnais pointed out in regard to what critics called possibly the first use of flashbacks in film, all memories and “flashbacks” actually exist in the present. But LaRose has its own literary way of bringing the past directly into the present, through distinctly Native American storytelling traditions.

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Another recommendation: The Argonauts, the highly-lauded memoir by Maggie Nelson. I have yet to read anything that better captures the un-identifiable nature of sexuality. For me, this brilliant page-turner is perplexingly marred by the way that Nelson raises straw men in order to summarily strike down various theoretical arguments about sexuality and subjectivity – Freudian and other – single-quote by single-quote. But it’s still such an important book.

https://www.graywolfpress.org/books/argonauts

** FILE ** In this July 11, 2008 photo, a giant glacier is seen making its way to the waters of Croaker Bay on Devon Island. Arctic sea ice is melting so fast most of it could be gone in 30 years, according to a new report to be released Friday, April 3, 2009. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jonathan Hayward, File)

A recent online project for “On Returning,” San Francisco MoMA’s Open Space web series, organized by Grupa O.K.

Just what is it that makes today’s museums so different, so appealing? Notes on a Museum of Resistance

 

It’s been about two and a half years since my first blog post, and I’ve decided to take a break from posting regularly. I started the blog because I felt the need to find a platform for some of my everyday thoughts on culture and the world in general. And the scroll layout of a blog lends itself to the montage of words and images, a format that I’ve always found compelling. But sometimes new demands on energy and time present themselves…For those who are just finding the site, there are many still-relevant posts to peruse by clicking on the partial list on the side, or by the month below.

Every so often, I’ll post something. And once in a while, I’ll post a reference to some kind of “do not miss” text, movie, art show, book, podcast, t.v. series, etc.

Do not miss “Occupied,” the Norwegian t.v. series available on Netflix – it takes place in the near future; Russia has occupied Norway for the European Union, because Norway has decided to independently stop producing oil due to the dangers of climate change. The oil hits the fan as the Prime Minister attempts to avoid suicidal military confrontation, the occupation breeds some militant resistance, and everyone else tries to come to terms with a contemporary definition of occupation.

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It’s got a brilliantly terrifying script that has an intense contemporary urgency, but is not written, directed, or acted in a broad manner. It’s got the kind of acting that no longer exists in the U.S., where our obsession with starlets and leading men robs us of real talent. And it’s got a matter-of-fact inclusion of various types of characters that also don’t populate our t.v. series – starting with, they’ve got real complexity, not just 2-dimensional brooding temperaments, for god’s sake…

Enjoy – if you can!

xmas 18It’s that time of year…

xmas 25when ghosts return…

xmas 11

xmas 24Guy Debord turns over in his grave…

xmas 2xmas 3xmas 10Rosa Luxemburg wonders just what it is we don’t understand…

xmas 16xmas 23Jacques Derrida would like us to dwell on insidious terminologies…

xmas 20xmas 26xmas 21Sylvia Plath decries the plague of toadstools overnight…

xmas 14xmas 15xmas 8xmas 19and Virginia Woolf reminds us…

xmas 12xmas 17…that you cannot find peace by avoiding life…

xmas 13

 

 

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Violence haunts. It haunts all but those who are psychically defended against it – defended against it by fear, by the pleasurable intensity of vested interest, or by the emotional short-circuiting that is psychosis.

But more often than not, and certainly more often than cultural representations would like us to believe, the emotions precipitated by violence are complex and individuated, even for the basic neurotic personality. Violence is primal and simple, but also lousy with politics and discourse, and with repressed suffering.

Yet the more complex everyday violence becomes – rife with globalized power imbalances – the more stripped down and un-nuanced does American film-acting style become in American narrative films that directly involve violence. Instead of acting, we get acting-out. Often in such films, spectators are offered the comforts of being able to identify with a surprisingly deadened style of acting. Of course, it may have something to do with the reductive, one-note nature of the scripts of most American films. Or with the amount of botox that gets syringed in Los Angeles. But that desire to not have the face be an emotional, affective register is not simply motivated by a youth-crazy consumer culture. Nothing happens for a single reason.

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In the last few years, it’s become evident that if you’re looking for subtle, layered, nuanced acting style, you have to look beyond American actors. This phenomenon generated a long Atlantic article a while back, though not a very enlightening one.

Recently, I watched the first two films in the Pusher trilogy. I was in the midst of moving home and studio, and unmoored from my digital connections, I watched them on my i-pad, able to pause and fast-forward when I wasn’t able to cope with the brutality of the violence it represents. I hope to watch the third film in just the same way, in spite of being re-connected to my domestic digital empire. The digital fast-forward mechanism allows me to see thumb-nail images at whatever speed I choose, and it’s only in that tiny form that I can tolerate the most violent seconds.

But in the midst of all that violence are the faces. Actor’s faces that register several emotions at once. Faces that manage to register both machismo and fear at the same time. Humiliation and brutal impassiveness. Pleasure, panic, horror, redemption, and resignation – all at once. Such is the face of actor Mads Mikkelsen in the last moments of the last scene of the second Pusher film- With Blood on My Hands- from which these gifs are drawn.

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And in taking in the simultaneous affective registers that Americans tend to think of as mutually exclusive, the spectator is thrown into an identificatory conundrum. Something we should be thrown into more often these days, when politicians, journalists, and media producers and editors encourage reductive thinking about violence.

In part, this much-needed identificatory conundrum depends on the kind of remarkable actors you find in The Pusher trilogy. But of course, those actors depend on scripts written and funded by those who see subtlety, nuance, and contradiction as more than pesky obstructions to the bottom line. Without that attitude, it’s like being stuck in an endless gif loop…

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Event detail of 12 Weeks in May, 1977, by Suzanne Lacy.

Event detail of 12 Weeks in May, 1977, by Suzanne Lacy.

A few weeks ago I invited Emily Apter, Emily Liebert, and Siona Wilson to discuss some recent and historical art projects that address the issue of rape. [Participant bios can be found at the foot of this transcript.]

Silvia Kolbowski I’ll start with the brief text I sent to all of you in advance of our in-person conversation. In the last few years there has been substantial reporting on the lack of responsiveness- on the part of American universities, police departments, and prosecutors – to the epidemic of rapes, both on university campuses and off. The 2015 film The Hunting Ground documents this criminal negligence as it takes place in universities. The film delves into some reasons for this behavior, including the willingness of universities to ignore allegations in order to maintain the positive branding (and therefore competitiveness) of tuition-hungry institutions in the U.S. education marketplace, and their reluctance to risk alienating, by holding them accountable, the fraternities and sports players that are the strongest generators of alumni donations.  In addition, a recent report revealed that even repeat rapists are often not pursued by police departments and prosecutors because rape cases pose difficult challenges to both, and career-promoting successes in rape cases can be elusive. The fact that police departments are reluctant to engage in connecting database information across the country, which would greatly contribute to capturing and successfully prosecuting repeat rapists, indicates that there’s something in excess of careerist pragmatism at play in ignoring reported rape crimes.

The reporting and documentation of the rape crisis has been direct and thorough, backed up by compelling, not to say devastating studies and statistics, although of course the issue deserves even greater distribution. But such facts do not always convince when a culture doesn’t value women’s sovereignty. This is where non-legal and non-documentary representation comes in, raising the question of what art can contribute to intervening in a problem that is never disconnected from other aspects of cultural misogyny.

To that end, we’ll look at a number of art projects of the last few decades that deal with rape. I’ll start with two general questions – What are the particular ways in which art can intervene in the rape crisis? Which projects come to mind in this regard?

Siona Wilson Thinking about the range of different artistic projects that address the question of rape, from the late 1960s through the last few years, they seem to occupy the position of activism, assuming the voice of the artist as an activist voice. It’s striking that even the film The Hunting Ground, represents a range of artistic projects. There’s the photographic art project through which one of the central protagonists, from UNC Chapel Hill, came out to the campus community about her rape. And of course there’s the central example of Emma Sulkowicz at Columbia University, with her Carry the Weight mattress art project, in which she uses a performance project as a way of putting pressure on the University to act on her accusation of rape by another student on campus.

Kolbowski Siona, are you defining an art project as activist if it has a direct goal, if it addresses the institution directly with a demand? Is that what defines the work as activist for you?

Wilson In this case, I think so. It’s the act of taking on the role of advocacy, with a speech address directed to the institution. And I think there’s another level in which we can see, if we go back and look at some of the historical examples, such as the Ana Mendieta work from 1973 – Untitled (Rape scene) – that the activist dimension of such a work was tied into a feminist politics of consciousness-raising, of discussions. It may not have been what she intended, but that was what arose from the work.

Kolbowski I would say, based on what you’re describing, that the Suzanne Lacy works on rape – the 1977 “Three Weeks in May” and its 2012 recreation, fit into your description. But I wouldn’t say that the Mendieta project did.

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Event detail of 12 Weeks in May, 1977, by Suzanne Lacy.

Wilson I think it does in the sense that it’s a live work. The audience is invited into her apartment, where they witness her with blood on her body, a re-enactment of a rape/murder case that was recent in her college community, and the audience response is to stage a discussion about what happened. So that became part of the work, with a response that was actually the development of a discourse around the issue of rape. Even if Mendieta hadn’t intended it, it took on the role of advocacy.

Kolbowski I thought the point of the Mendieta project was to position the spectator as a voyeur through their witnessing a tableau in a personal setting. There’s an echo of the Mendieta piece in the Sulkowicz web video piece – Ceci n’est pas un viol. By virtue of using a surveillance camera format with a split screen to show sex enacted by herself and an anonymous male, Sulkowicz positions spectators as voyeurs.

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Documentation of Untitled (Rape scene), 1973, by Ana Mendieta.

Liebert I think a crucial difference between those two pieces is that Mendieta is showing us a kind of after-image, so the spectator by necessity has to project what has preceded the tableau. But in Ceci n’est pas un viol, we’re actually watching the act start to finish.

Wilson But Ceci n’est pas un viol also provides an after-image, because it’s not the actual act.

Apter Ceci n’est pas un viol raises the question of address, of how you come to the work. Are you supposed to have the foreknowledge of Carry That Weight, and of the media spectacle around Sulkowicz’s rape accusation on campus and the fallout from all of that? There are several levels of reference involved.

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Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol, video, 2015, Emma Sulkowicz.

Kolbowski In that regard, what is different now – which didn’t exist at the time of the Mendieta piece, or with the first Lacy rape project– is the search algorithm. With somebody like Sulkowicz, everything gets attached to everything else, which is the nature of the algorithm. So you would have to assume that anyone looking at Ceci n’est pas un viol would be aware of her earlier accusation and of Carry That Weight.

Apter The Mendieta and the Lacy pieces, as you mentioned, Siona, were made in reference to actual rapes that had occurred to others. But the difference with Ceci n’est pas un viol is that this supposedly happened to Sulkowicz. So it’s not the re-presenting the rapes of even anonymous others, based on information that could have been taken from police files or blotters, but instead a level of self-situating that is very different from the other works. That’s a huge difference. The fact that with post-millenials it’s all about “me.”

Siona When I first watched Ceci n’est pas un viol, I was struck by that shift from a collective connection or advocacy to an individual perspective. But it’s really important to see this as a web project and this connects back to Silvia’s point about the connectivity of the internet. You immediately wiki Sulkowicz and find information. And that’s how she staged this work. I also think that the text that she put as a preface to the video on the project webpage, which raises a trigger warning, evokes a collective viewing response. And I thought the comments were crucial to the work.

Kolbowski Ceci n’est pas un viol is an enactment at a personal level, as you’ve pointed out, Emily. But of course the artist means to be representative; her claim on the project website is that she’s setting out to change the world. But to some degree that video as an artwork has a tendency to simplify and to reduce what rape culture is in general. There’s a lot of complexity around the role that rape plays in contemporary culture – whether it’s an aspect of a military war or something that takes place on a university campus, or if it is carried out in an urban context that delimits which areas women can traverse alone and which they can’t.

Apter And sex trafficking…

Kolbowski Exactly. So although I think that one of the main things that Ceci n’est pas un viol does well is allude to the way that rape is sexualized, when in fact rape has little to do with sex, I also think that the project does not bring to light the complexity of rape in our culture. What do you think?

Apter Yes and no. When I watched the video for the first time, it felt very staged and almost like watching something on a stage; a mock enactment. She doesn’t want to use the word “re-enactment”-

Wilson – a demonstration.

Apter But it’s very unconvincing as sex.

Wilson Absolutely.

Apter So the fact that some of the comments left on the site refer to what takes place in the video as porn –in order to undermine her project, or to hurt her – maybe some porn has the same effect, but it really wasn’t very good as porn. It wasn’t convincing to me in that regard. But when I watched it the second time, I did think that it actually problematized the question of consent. And this gets into something that is maybe not critically profound, but I think that there’s a general misunderstanding about sex. People can enter into having sex, and it can be very pleasurable at one moment, and“consensual,” and then suddenly it’s not. Sex is risky in that way. And the question raised for me in this regard is, where is this pointing? Is Sulkowicz saying that sex should not be risky? That sex should always, in a sense, have an institutional eye looking out for you? Or the old cliché of the contract, where you’re signing onto this and this, and having everything spelled out? You don’t have to be a libertarian feminist to say, no way, I do not want that; I do not want the state intruding into my body, just as I wouldn’t want the state telling me whether I could have an abortion or not. So these are the kinds of contadictions that were raised for me on second viewing, where I felt that it did capture that menacing moment when she – maybe because the slap was louder the second time I heard it, and the “ow,” and I looked more closely at the moment where violence and risk come together, and not so much the sex itself, which I took out of the picture. So the question of consent and the question of a feminist position about risk within sexuality – that was what was raised for me the second time I viewed the video, linked to some kind of performative dimension. I would say that the work problematizes that issue for me.

Kolbowski I thought it was interesting that the sound of the slaps seems to be imposed in post-production. I’m almost positive that he’s not generating that degree of sound during the course of videotaping, because it has a different quality than the rest of the sound in the video.

Wilson Really?!

Apter That actually changes what I’ve just said…

Kolbowski It seemed to me that the sound of the slaps was heightened in post-production. In regards to what you said, Emily A., I wanted to raise the article recommended to us by Emily L., written by Carrie Lambert-Beatty, in part on the 2008 senior project by the then Yale undergraduate art student Aliza Shvartz. The project was described in a Yale newspaper as “…a documentation of a nine-month process during which she artificially inseminated herself ‘as often as possible’ while periodically taking abortifacient drugs to induce miscarriages. Her exhibition will feature video recordings of these forced miscarriages as well as preserved collections of the blood from the process.” One of the things that struck me in Carrie’s text – although obviously the piece by Shvartz is about abortion and not about rape – in terms of how an artwork can intervene, is Carrie’s point that Shvartz’s piece was intended to and did engage institutional mechanisms -the institutional frameworks of law, public discourse, popular definitions of morality, the media’s role in defining an act, the university’s enactment of what it perceived to be its legal privileges, the revealing alignment of pro- and anti-abortion public discourses, etc. And by virtue of smoking out these institutional elements, as Carrie points out, the work highlights the different definitions that could be accorded to the act in different frameworks. In one institutional context, the artist is thought to have performed self-abortions; in another context the event is considered a menstrual period; in another  it’s a performance. Reading about the Shvartz piece made me question whether Ceci n’est pas un viol frames the existing levels of complexity in rape culture. That’s not to say that rape isn’t simply rape. In other words, where consent doesn’t exist, it’s rape.

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Apter The question is, what is the act? Is the accent here on the consent or is it on something called genital penetration? I think you can be raped in different ways. It can shade into something metaphorical, a form of psychic violence that is absolutely devastating and leads to trauma, but doesn’t involve physical penetration or a form of violence with an object on your body…

Kolbowski Did you notice that in The Hunting Ground they refer to anything that is not penetration by a penis as sexual assault? And rape is the word that they reserve for the penetration of an orifice by a penis.

Wilson I wonder if they were using a legal definition?

Kolbowski But even if it were a legal definition, it’s still interesting that they chose that demarcation for the documentary –

Apter – even if it were legal, it doesn’t mean it’s true. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t a blur line between assault and penetration.

Kolbowski Right.

Liebert The questions that you’re bringing up about consent and risk, which are maybe the complexities raised by Ceci n’est pas un viol, did they map onto issues of spectatorship for you or did they seem like they were located exclusively in the sphere of rape?

Apter Siona brought up the question of address. The question of spectatorship or auditory reception is important because there’s an active way of looking at the video, and then there’s the address of the instructions, the proviso or warning text on the Ceci n’est pas un viol website page. Sulkowicz writes “Do not watch this video if your motives would upset me, my desires are unclear to you, or my nuances are indecipherable…Please don’t participate in my rape. Watch kindly.” Many of us would find that manipulative. And that’s what a lot of the comments on the blog are reacting against – “Oh, well, I guess I just raped Emma Sulkowicz.” But the text presents a taunt – please, please don’t participate in my rape. Ceci n’est pas un viol – for me it’s spells “don’t do it, but do it.” It’s one of these double negative affirmatives. It’s Octave Mannoni’s “Je sais bien, mais quand même..” I know, but still.

Kolbowski But doesn’t that echo a large aspect of rape culture — the masculinist assumption that when women say no, they really mean yes?

Apter That was the most shocking thing in The Hunting Ground, the sign at a Skull and Bones fraternity that had on it “No means yes; yes means anal.”

Kolbowski Then how do you interpret the written preface to Ceci n’est pas un viol ?

Wilson I found it annoying when I first read the webpage preface, but only in so far as it seemed naïve. But that’s the nature of a student art project. She’s no longer a student with this work, but still it had that I-want-to-save-the-world naivete to it. But I also found the preface interesting, because it stages the very problem that the video itself seems to be presenting. And here I want to go back to the point that you made, Emily A., which is that Ceci n’est pas un viol raises some very difficult questions that The Hunting Ground as a documentary cannot raise; for example, the question of sexual practice in a more general sense, when it really isn’t clear whether consent is being given. Consent doesn’t cover the whole issue. I thought, how could anybody watch her video if you followed Sulkowicz’s directions, because how can we really know what she feels? It poses an impossibility.

Apter It leaves you with the possibility that if consent is ultimately unknowable, then what are you saying to the university, to the institution?

Wilson Exactly, this opens up a whole other issue.

Kolbowski But then isn’t there an element of so-called acting out in that preface?

Wilson That’s another form of juvenilia.

Kolbowski But what she’s setting up in the webpage preface is the very complexity that she’s denying in both her public accusations and in the video. I’m not, let me be clear, suggesting that she didn’t get raped. She may have been. But I prefer to treat this artwork as an artwork.

Apter But is this a site-specific work, in the sense that it has to refer to knowledge about her case in order to make sense?

Kolbowski The preface implies that she would say no.

Liebert I agree that there’s a promise in the title and in the textual framework that the piece is about the impossibility of proof or of naming rape, and that in the space of that ambiguity is where the spectator would project. In the title and the framework there’s a promise that the piece will turn back to the spectator, and then to me that space is collapsed in the visual material, or reduced.

Kolbowski In that regard I would return to the Mendieta piece. Mendieta sets up only one condition for viewing – that of voyeurship. She sets up a peephole, in effect. She doesn’t prescribe viewer reactions and outcomes. It’s interesting that although the Mendieta work is owned by the Tate, they describe the work on their website, but there is a blank where the image would be, and yet the image is searchable. That raises the general question of what gets shown and what doesn’t get shown. In other words, in the legal courtroom the word and forensic evidence should suffice. The least likely thing is that there would be a visual representation of a rape. At the very best you’d have corroborating evidence, as in one of the cases presented in The Hunting Ground, where the rapist’s schoolmates witnessed parts of the assault, although it didn’t seem to help the case.

But in an artwork that addresses rape, if it isn’t a work that depends solely on data, the tendency is to visualize.

Apter And that ties into the Black Lives Matter movement, and whether seeing the footage is changing the nature of the trials or the possibility of a grand jury indictment. What seems to be so shocking is that you can come up with forensic evidence and even have footage and it’s still not making a difference in terms of how the law is responding.

Liebert I think this also goes back to Silvia’s framing. You asked what art can offer in situations where facts don’t convince. Black Lives Matter arose when proof was ineffective. In the incidences of rape – when facts don’t convince, what can come in? In important ways, the Sulkowicz mattress piece had real impact in terms of catalyzing a very broad activist effort, and there she used a symbolic object and her body’s relationship to that object to disrupt the routines on [at?]the site of an institution.

Wilson She used that project to connect it to the institution, and also to complicate the situation.

Kolbowski The mattress piece used a metonymic strategy and also the engagement of identification in a collective sense–

Wilson –because of those who helped carry the mattress, and offered support.

Kolbowski And maybe not only offered support, but also engaged in an experiential identification.

Wilson With regard to the question of the visual, the Eric Garner case on Staten Island made it very clear –since the whole assault was recorded on video, which did not aid in indicting the officer–that it’s always discourse that frames the veracity of the visual. I think it’s Ariella Azulay who has written that it’s impossible to photograph rape. The question of rape does not reside in the visual. It has to reside in a discursive framing of the visual. So even if you have a kind of reenactment of a rape event, the reenactment is doing other things than providing veracity and proof. Maybe it would be interesting to think about what kind of work the visual is engaged in.

Apter Just as a footnote, I can’t help pointing out that the subtitle of the Magritte piece, Ceci n’est pas une pipe is La Trahison des images. The Treachery of Images. It seems to me you could also apply that subtitle to Ceci n’est pas un viol.

Wilson, Liebert Right.

KolbowskI But the fact remains that the artist chose to–

Wilson–to represent.

Kolbowski Images, whether they be videos or photographic images, often serve to reinforce the prejudice of the viewer. Because that is an aspect of viewing. A comparable example that I’ve used in teaching is Slavoj Zizek’s point about the Austrian election in which Kurt Waldheim ran for president. The Socialist party that ran against him exposed as the major part of their campaign the facts of Waldheim’s Nazi role. And Waldheim won! So, as Zizek points out, by telling the truth, by exposing something that Waldheim himself could not have exposed but something with which voters identified or at least condoned, the opposing party was doing the work of electing Waldheim. That’s where the limitations of the image come into play. It’s like saying, I use this video to prove that something that is considered consensual is actually part of rape culture, part of a rape. But then you read the 4600 comments on the website, and you have your proof that people will distort by projecting themselves onto the image. The image confirms what they want confirmed. And that to me points to what you quoted, Siona, that…

Wilson …that discourse determines the image. It shapes the meaning of the image. Azoulay’s point that rape cannot be a visual thing.

Kolbowski Well, it is for both the perpetrator and the victim, but…

Apter And let it not be forgotten that in the culture we’re in, very often it is precisely for viewing that many women in these initiation rights of fraternities are gang-raped, and it’s filmed and sometimes distributed. So it’s not just that they are violated in terms of a legal notion of consent but that any sense of their privacy is violently attacked. And the loss of privacy doesn’t fall under sexual assault. But it does become rape by spectatorship.

Liebert In The Hunting Ground they discuss one fraternity that has a “conquest wall” of photographs.

Apter So even though a “post-feminist” generation describes itself as empowered, as sex-positive, as initiators as much as they’re being hit on, there is nonetheless – though perhaps it’s linked to backlash –also this idea of the woman-hunt. Silvia, you mentioned rape in war situations, but it’s also a form of sport that gets incorporated into hazings. One of the things that’s so troubling is that rape is ignored and blatantly condoned, especially when it’s to do with sports heroes on campus. Universities and police departments won’t go there; there’s too much money at stake, there’s too much male heroism at stake. So that old idea of the woman-hunt is strangely reinforced in such settings, and especially with the spectatorial aggression that’s attached to it.

Liebert And it’s interesting that there’s a sort of dualism, or an unfortunate contradiction here. On the one hand we’re talking about an extreme visiblity that you’re rightly saying is part of the rape, and on the other hand an invisibility that perpetuates rape culture. It’s exposure in the wrong places.

Kolbowski I wonder if it wouldn’t be more important for art to pursue the rape issue obliquely. Because one of the things that’s clear in reportage about rape, and documented in The Hunting Ground, is how the shame that rape victims experience often shapes their hesitation to report the crime. Even today, shame is often the reason why they don’t tell family or friends, let alone the police. And yet it’s telling that the women who are expressing shame in the film are the same ones whose rapes involved no nuances of consent at all. Female shame is a part of rape culture. By addressing the question of shame that women feel when they’re violated by rape or sexual assault, you’re not necessarily going to change the ways universities or cops react to accusations, but you would start to chip away at a huge part of why we’re not making any headway against the statistic of a rape every six minutes in the U.S.

Apter I just went to see a very interesting film by Sylvie and Florence Tissot about the French feminist Christine Delphy, which was, interestingly, titled Je ne suis pas féministe, mais…. A title in the line of those denials that affirm. There was a discussion afterwards with a group of feminists. I think it was Sarah Shulman who said in the discussion that there was no feminism anymore. And I objected by pointing out that there are many discussions of rape. Her point was that there was no real feminist engagement at the moment because there’s no anger, because there are no issues that women are angry about.

Kolbowski Wow.

Apter I didn’t buy that. But it relates a little to what you’re saying, Silvia, in that we could ask if rape is a galvanizing issue. The focus on rape often refers to privileged women on campuses, but not always, or to date rape, and that kind of focus often get media attention. But is the focus on rape gaining traction as a rejuvenation of feminism at this particular moment? Is it one of those issues that crosses generational, class, race, and professional lines?

Kolbowski It should. Think about, for example, the link I sent to the performative piece by the art collective Blank Noise that was done in India, which has the third highest rape statistic in the world.

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Activists converse with strangers on a road near Bangalore, India, as part of the public art project, Talk To Me, by Blank Noise art collective, begun in 2012.

Wilson I think that’s a great point, Emily A., and I do think that it’s a class-defined issue. For example, at the public college where I teach, we’ve only had student dorms for a couple of years. So students are not living on campus. If there isn’t a social life around the campus, if students work at night, if they don’t have social events–

Liebert –if they’re not drinking together.

Wilson They’re not drinking together.

Kolbowski But the one-rape-every-six-minutes in the U.S. is happening to women whether they’re on campus or not.

Apter But when the rape occurs on campus, the media is giving it another level of attention.

Kolbowski True. To bring the topic back around to art, I would reiterate my initial question. There’s obviously a necessity for data, for legal activism, for demands placed on institutions, and also to rewrite the discourse of women’s sovereignty, let’s say, but what do we see–

Apter – a necessity for sexual citizenship!

Liebert, Kolbowski, Wilson Sexual citizenship!

Apter But that’s for another discussion, since we should bring the discussion back to art.

Kolbowski Well, we’ve talked about visualization and non-visualization, and we shouldn’t exclude the auditory in discussing art about rape. Because there is an auditory dimension to rape, even though typically no soundtrack to rape travels beyond the perpetrator and victim. These are the things that art excels at – it excels at the visual, it excels at the auditory, and even at the discursive and the affective. So is there something that art can contribute to this ongoing crisis that it’s particularly well-poised to do?

Apter This isn’t a direct answer to your question, but it is something that comes back to the formal construction of Ceci n’est pas un viol. We haven’t discussed its four frames and what the different camera angles do or don’t do to the viewing of the act. The project overtly refuses the term reenactment, but it quotes surveillance footage, the way the surveillance camera is used when you’re reviewing a crime scene. The different angles – they’re probably false angles into a truth, but to address your question directly, there is still in art some claim to authenticity, some claim to truth – even if it is refuted or denied. In art there’s some claim to a higher angle of vision or a multiplicity of angles of vision, that may bring you to the aporia, to the unknowable, but they may also bring you to critical parameters. So the question is whether the technique that Sulkowicz used, of the four frames and the different angles is intrinsically important to how we approach Ceci n’est pas un viol? Does it actually go somewhere in answering the questions you raised about the topic?

Kolbowski It’s interesting that a lot of the comments on the Ceci n’est pas un viol website have to do with the surveillance aspect of the work. I read one comment that shocked me. The writer pointed out that the window in the room is not covered. The commenter then reasons that because of the exposed window, the impression that the man would have gotten in going into the room is that the woman was into voyeuristic sex and therefore the man would have gotten mixed messages about what sort of sex she wanted to engage in. I didn’t even notice that window when I watched the video a couple of times, and in fact there’s no way of telling from the window in the four frames whether anyone could actually look into the room. So for that reason among others, the comment is exposed as pure projection. In some ways, the most reprehensible and stupid comments on the site are the work of the piece. And that’s where I think art has the potential to intervene– at the level of the psychical. To understand that it isn’t just about proving a violation to a spectator, but rather to show how the spectator frames that violation.

Wilson And frames it through their own experience, through their own investment in their own sexuality, their own…sexual citizenship!!

Liebert Related to your comments on the piece itself, and to your question, Silvia, I think that art informed by feminism, specifically, can intervene in the rape crisis. The most successful elements of Ceci n’est pas un viol and Carry That Weight are in the ways they turn back toward the spectator, and that is one of the legacies of art informed by feminism that Sulkowicz is carrying forward.

Kolbowski Would you say that it’s art informed by feminism and psychoanalysis? Do you think that there’s an awareness in the work of the psychical dimension of spectatorship?

Liebert Yes, the work engages questions of desire—conscious and unconscious—in spectatorship.

Kolbowski Shall we end on that note?

Apter Sure, except there’s one last thing I’d like to bring up.  You’ve said, Silvia, that there are several ways in which you find Ceci n’est pas un viol to be problematic. Can you pin that down for us? What was most problematic for you about the piece?

Kolbowski It has to do with what I pointed out earlier in comparing Ceci n’est pas un viol to the Shvartz piece. For me, Ceci n’est pas un viol doesn’t expose the institutional/discursive framework of how people are positioned in rape culture. There’s too much investment in Ceci n’est pas un viol in proving a smaller point – no less traumatic, but smaller. Sometimes a smaller focus can stand in for the larger, but for me in that work it doesn’t. Maybe it does for others. For me, the Shvartz piece continued to resonate after I read about it because of the way that it exposes framework and because of the nuanced ways that work displays how women are contained through naming. Because ultimately, while rape is a physical violation, so much of the violence of rape concerns language…in its aftermath, and in the continuation of that culture.

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Emily Apter is Professor of French and Comparative Literature, and Chair of Comparative Literature at New York University. Recent books include Against World Literature: On The Politics of Untranslatability (2013) and Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon (co-edited with Barbara Cassin, Jacques Lezra and Michael Wood) (2014). Recent articles include “Occupy Derivatives!” in October, “Planetary Dysphoria” in Third Text, and “Women’s Time (Again)” in differences. In 2012 she was appointed Remarque-Ecole Normale Supérieure Visiting Professor in Paris. Together with Bruno Bosteels she co-edited Alain Badiou’s The Age of the Poets and Other Writings on Poetry and Prose (Verso 2014).

Emily Liebert is a Curatorial Assistant at The Museum of Modern Art in the Department of Painting and Sculpture since 2013. Prior to her current position she curated the exhibition Multiple Occupancy: Eleanor Antin’s “Selves” (2013-2014) at Columbia’s Wallach Art Gallery and ICA/Boston, which was a finalist for an AICA “Best Exhibition” award. From 2008-2011 Liebert was a Joan Tisch Teaching Fellow at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and participated in the Whitney Independent Study Program (2009-2010). Liebert holds a B.A from Yale (1997) and a Ph.D. from Columbia (2013).

Siona Wilson is author of Art Labor, Sex Politics: Feminist Effects in 1970s British Art and Performance (Minnesota, 2015). She is Associate professor of art history at the College of Staten Island and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Her research interests are grounded in issues of sexual difference, sexuality and the intersection of art and politics in post-war and contemporary art in relation to experiment film, video, photography, performance and sound/music. Recent publications include an essay on Yvonne Rainer’s Film About a Woman Who… (October) and a reflection on digital media and Kara Walker’s A Subtlety (Brooklyn Rail).

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Installation view of Halka/Haiti 18°48’05”N 72°23’01,” Venice Biennale, Polish Pavilion, 2015. C.T. Jasper and Joanna Malinowska.

This year, the little that I experienced of the Venice Biennale came through social and digital media. An intriguing post on my Facebook feed drew me to the project produced for the Polish pavilion. I searched for the project online and read about it on a few sites. There aren’t that many art projects of subtlety and complexity that travel and translate well through social media, but this project seems to be one, and it made me ponder why.

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Halka/Haiti 18°48’05”N 72°23’01.” Performance view.

The project is Halka/Haiti 18°48’05”N 72°23’01,” by the artists C.T. Jasper and Joanna Malinowska, curated by Magdalena Moskalewicz. In brief, the project entails the recent staging by the artists of a production of an 1858 Polish “national” opera – Halka – in a village in Haiti in which reside descendants of the Polish soldiers who, brought by Napoleon to put down the anti-colonial rebellion in Haiti, are thought to have deserted Napoleon’s troops to fight alongside the Haitians who defeated the French in 1803.

In the curator’s catalogue essay, Moskalewicz has written a fascinating account of the histories of the opera and its place in the Polish imagination, and of the histories and mythologies that have grown up around the possible role of the Polish soldiers in the revolutionary event in Haiti. The account is fascinating because of the subtle intricacies of Moskalewicz’s argument, which she develops as a backdrop to the work, but also because Moskalewicz chose to write very little about the project she selected to curate for the pavilion. Even in an official video, she doesn’t really explain the project to spectators. The table of contents in the catalogue for the exhibition indicates that there are interviews with the artists and some statements by the participants, as well as a few other historical texts. But Moskalewicz devotes the great majority of her text to an analysis of the national mythologies that underpin the project; for example, the national identity role that the 1858 opera – stylistically retardataire even at its arrival – has persisted in playing for so many decades.

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Traditional presentation of the opera Halka, composed by Stanisław Moniuszko to a libretto written by Włodzimierz Wolski. First performed in 1848.

I don’t know why Moskalewicz chose to address the project this way. Perhaps she felt that the project could represent itself. Inversely, maybe she felt that the project needed a historical backdrop in order to represent itself. In any case, her choice creates a kind of respectful space around the project. By sticking largely to questions of how histories play out in the national imagination of the present, she allows the work to take on its separate role as art. She neither inflates nor underestimates its political and cultural role. Ultimately, she makes a case for questioning “nation” in general, which is a way of looking at the larger picture of an exhibition based, as she points out, on the very idea of the nation.

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Halka/Haiti 18°48’05”N 72°23’01.” Detail taken from performance image.

But why does the project itself succeed in traveling so well in such a condensed way through social media? There’s no question that being present in the space of the exhibition must have produced a different affective spectatorial experience of the work than reading about it and viewing images. But it’s unique when a work conveys the depth of its layered meanings through a several-sentence description and a few photos, unique when it can work at opposite scales without losing subtlety, and while still resonating and provoking thought.

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Halka/Haiti 18°48’05”N 72°23’01.” Detail taken from performance image.

Some of it must have to do with the sharp contrasts that the parameters of the project create. The inclusion of indigeneous and non-indigenous participants, for example (the opera is sung by professional Polish opera singers). But even there, the issues involved are complex. Because some of the indigenous Haitian participants in the project are descendents of the Polish soldiers who are thought to have aligned themselves with the revolt of the colonial Haitian subjects in 1803. And the insertion into that contemporary context of an opera that has been popularly and stubbornly accorded the status of Polish national representation – when Polish “nationhood” has been so historically fraught in general, and with a narrative about class disparity, no less – foregrounds how troubled the notion of the nation is once the colonizer’s ships hit the water, or soldiers cross national land boundaries or, for that matter, once money travels along digital signals. Even the word itself, indigenous, is ambiguous. It doesn’t depend on a definitive temporality of origin.

If we’re going to be subject to the dispersal of art by digital media, would that many other projects would travel this well. In this instance it’s especially important that the work travels well, because it’s discourse applies to so many contexts, while being intensely specific to one.

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Halka/Haiti 18°48’05”N 72°23’01.” Detail taken from performance image.

In the “overture” to her essay, Moskalewicz sets the scene by describing the anxiety felt by the artists and production team at the start of the filming of the project, due to what looked like impending rain that would have ruined the scheduled performance and filming. I wonder whether filming the project through the chaos of rain wouldn’t have added a fortuitous dimension to the project, given its allusions to the traumas of imperial and colonial legacies – in Haiti, in Poland, and elsewhere. Because the performative event that is just history, not art, is usually subject to chaos.

We may be closer than ever to Warhol’s contention that everyone will achieve their 15 minutes of fame, but the focus of mass voyeuristic interest is still reserved for the few and the particular.

yoko camera 3Sometimes that voyeurism is sought out and cultivated, developed as a business model and monetized to the nth degree.

kim and kanyeSometimes mass voyeurism is dreaded and feared by its objects for its capacity to break down the ego’s fragile borders, as with singer and musician Amy Winehouse, made clear in the frighteningly explicit documentary, Amy.

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The film has to be seen to grasp the level of sadistic media hysteria that dogged her every move. Sadistic because the mass media (those who took the photos and those who displayed them) saw a ready opportunity to exploit the very deterioration they helped to precipitate. See the film to understand why drugs were the least of her problems.

yoko camera 1_smSometimes mass fixation and voyeurism have the quality of being attached to a particular person, but in part as a displacement from a related figure, as I experienced when I went to see the Yoko Ono exhibition at MoMA and encountered the artist herself, coming out of the exhibition and being mobbed by hyper-excited fans.

Not to diminish Ono’s own accomplishments and talents, but she may be the only conceptual artist in the world who could be mobbed by museum-goers. She will eternally be the object of displaced cathected energy directed at John.

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Installation view of Yoko Ono exhibition, MoMA, 2015.

Thinking about both the Amy film and the encounter with Yoko Ono’s hyper-excited fans brought to mind the new video by Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia University art student who accused a male Columbia student of raping her and held that the University did not take her accusation seriously. Sulkowicz subsequently set in motion an art work, Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), which involved carrying a dorm mattress around campus, with the intention of carrying it, or having supporters carry it, until the subject of her accusation was expelled from or left the campus.

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Emma Sulkowicz, Ceci n’est pas un viol, 2015. Video still.

In the new work, a video called Ceci n’est pas un viol, Sulkowicz seems to literally enact what took place on the night of her alleged rape, captured in the form of a surveillance camera split-screen. In addition to what appears to be a literal enactment of sex, unforced and forced, the work’s website directs viewers as to how to perceive the video.

Why would thinking about Amy Winehouse and Yoko Ono, about the Amy film and the attention directed at Ono – or even the attention sought by mega-media-stars – make me think about this video? Because all involve being placed in the position of voyeur. There are cultural and political questions raised by all such gazing. But Ceci n’est pas un viol raises different cultural and political questions than viewing paparazzi shots or videos because it is an artwork, and not a cultural phenomenon per se. The main question raised for me by the work (and its 444 posted comments) is whether the work isn’t strongly compromised by its literal enactment by the enunciator of the accusation, the artist herself. Her own didactic interpretation aside, the work remains a literal enactment.

At the level of the law, a literal re-enactment is beside the point. On a political level, we should not need a literal enactment, a viewing of an actual sex act, to arrive at an assessment of whether we believe that someone could have conceivably been raped in a situation where the accused claims the actions were consensual. Language should suffice.

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Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Rape scene), 1973. Detail of documentation view.

On a cultural level, shouldn’t the work contend with decades of distance from literalism, distance from verisimilutude in art? Because to make work that elides that challenge is to skirt the significance of why genealogies of aesthetic form have crucial meaning.  Ana Mendieta’s  Untitled (Rape scene), 1973, comes to mind, though significantly it was not her own rape that Mendieta was physically enacting in her art work, and that distance is a crucial aspect of that work for the viewer. Hopefully some of these issues will be explored in a future discussion posted to the blog.

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Ex Machina, Alex Garland, 2015.

A young male programmer employed by a Google-esque company wins a contest to spend a week in the paranoically secluded abode and laboratory of the company’s grandiose and manipulative CEO. The programmer is to assess an artificial intelligence in the form of a beautiful young female robot invented by the CEO, an A.I. generated through the culling of data from millions of company user searches (desire and knowledge) and images taken from masses of phone data (affect). Can it pass muster as human, with human defined as having complex intelligence, decision-making skills, and individual personality? This is the narrative schema of the new film, Ex Machina, a film that ventures into the under-examined territory of the algorithm with a degree of criticality not found today in most artworks or even discursive texts.

In a recent article about artificial intelligence in the Science section of the NYT, the journalist’s discussion of how unlikely is the possibility that we could create the kind of autonomous A.I. robots pictured in the film could not be more wrong about what is really at stake in the discourse and imagery of the film. The journalist reads the film concretely and reassures readers that we are far from achieving A.I. in robot form because the most advanced robots in the U.S. today are “glacially slow in accomplishing tasks such as opening doors and entering rooms, clearing debris, climbing ladders and driving through an obstacle course.” Robots, according to the article, are dependent on human operators to guide machines via wireless networks, though some are semi-autonomous. They are “largely helpless without human supervisors.”

Yet that is precisely what we have to fear.

A lot of the anxiety doesn’t come from any real situation that A.I.s are about to take us over or the world is about to change because of A.I.s in any fundamental kind of way — not at the moment at any rate. It’s got more to do with big tech companies and the Internet and search engines and social media and that kind of thing. I think there’s a sense in which we feel that we don’t understand how our cellphones and our laptops work … but those things seem to understand a lot about us. Now that’s not really about artificial intelligence, it’s about tech paranoia. So somewhere in this I think I’m trying to look at that, too.

Alex Garland, Director of Ex Machina, NPR, April 14, 2015

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Ex Machina, 2015.

What the algorithm achieves today is set in motion by humans, but once set in motion by humans, algorithms collect data on populations at a speed and with an accuracy unachievable by the human mind or hand. The A.I.s of today are not housed in attractive “fembots.” They are housed in microchips and abstract mathematical formulas that are unsexy…to most.

An Adaptive Data Collection Algorithm Based on a Bayesian Compressed Sensing Framework

An Adaptive Data Collection Algorithm Based on a Bayesian Compressed Sensing Framework

The other thing I was interested in was the way tech companies present themselves. So Oscar Isaac’s character Nathan talks in this very kind of familiar, pal-y way. He uses the word “dude” and “bro” a lot. And I felt that this was sometimes how tech companies present themselves to us. They’re kind of like our friends. They say, “Hey pal, hey dude,” like we’re kind of mates, you know, “I’m not really a big tech company, I’m actually your friend and we’re hanging out sort of at a bar or at the beach and we’re sort of part of each other’s lifestyle, but at the same time I’m going to take a lot of money off you and I’m going to take all of your data and rifle through your address book” and that kind of thing.

Alex Garland, Director of Ex Machina, NPR, April 14, 2015

The critical dimensions of Ex Machina depend on a synthesis of the visual, the visceral, the aural, and the scripted. But like a lot of great films, Ex Machina achieves visually what cannot be enacted through language. Yes, the storyline is creepy, and its arc is that of a moral tale about A.I.s taking over the world. But the visual and affective aspects of the film draw in the spectator in ways that go beyond that of a repressible moral tale. The film’s subtle visual effects, the decisions made about just how close to hew to the visual realism of human skin and features and affect, and just how far to veer from that realism and at which moments to do so- these create a spectatorial engagement semi-separate from that of the script. Just as an utterance or an exchange or facial expression in the psychoanalytic setting can have reverberating effects on consciousness and on the unconscious, so can the unscripted aspects of film, independent from a story line, independent from its narrative ending.

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Ex Machina, 2015.

Granted, it’s a common trope in science fiction or cyberpunk fiction to create a frisson of sameness/difference where the human and the robotic meet.

Screen frame from A.I. Artificial Intelligence, a film by Steven Spielberg, 2001.

 A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Steven Spielberg, 2001.

But Ex Machina deploys the visual trope through a deeply intelligent understanding of how to manipulate it to critical ends.

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Ex Machina, 2015.

I will admit to spending a good part of the film trying to figure out just what special effects they used to achieve the creepy elision of space between human and robot in the Ava character; the physical interface between human and robot in Ava is fascinating. I was able to attend to this throughout the film because of its pacing, and I think that musing on that intermittently was actually one way of experiencing the film. I was only able to find an explanation of the effects employed through the accretion of information from a few articles after the viewing. Garland’s script is allegorical, something the science writer didn’t pick up. It’s not about A.I. per se. It’s the throwaway lines that haunt – the references to the CEO’s access to the memories and desires of hundreds of millions of us; Ava as the encapsulation of that access.  Ex Machina‘s particular ways of blurring the space between human and A.I are what gives the story its significance and its affective pull. And this is best achieved visually, so as to leave the viewer with the question (a visually composed question) of just how large they’d like that space to be.

 

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Left: Dada Puppen (Dada Dolls), 1916, Hannah Höch. Right: Collage (Dada), c. 1922. Hannah Höch.

The “Dadaist Manifesto” [Berlin, 1918] alludes to World War I as “the explosions of last week” and “yesterday’s crash,” asserting, simultaneously and almost paradoxically, both the war’s presence and its historicity, its belonging at once to the moments of the manifesto’s production and presentation and to a more or less immediate past. The manifesto calls up the overwhelming physical and psychological effects of the war. In so doing it means to insist on the necessary subjection of contemporary artists to the collisions that produced those traumatic effects, as well as the necessary recognition, on the part of artists  and their audiences, that those collisions had a history, that they belonged to the present as well as to a past that could be mapped, even if that past had taken place only yesterday, or last week…Thus Dada art emerged, at least prospectively, as an aggressively paradisiacal (kindheartedly malicious) counterpart to the exactness of photography, a new kind of art that would at once mimic cinema and instantiate the “real situation,” that is to say, the bodily disposition, of contemporary viewers…

Brigid Doherty, “Berlin,” in the catalogue for the exhibition Dada, curated by Leah Dickerman, 2006 [all illustrations from the catalogue.]

Trouble roils the land. Weak safety nets fray. Suffering displaces into rebellion. And we’re not talking about 1918. In such circumstances, the thorny questions of art’s imbrication in political and social change (not to utter the unspeakable challenge to capitalism) make their ghostly return. In the week after September 11, 2001, I was sent a few questions by a European art journal, asking whether I thought art and artists would be changed by the events of 9/11; would they change to be more politically relevant? In other words, how were artists subject to the “collisions” that produced the traumatic effects of that week.

My response was that if an artist’s work was politically relevant on 9/10, it would be politically relevant on 9/12.  Relevant, of course, is a word that is always open to questions.

Hannah Hochwith puppets she made, exhibited, and performed with, Berlin, 1920.

Hannah Höch with puppets she made, exhibited, and performed with, Berlin, 1920.

There is a sense in which Herzfelde’s introduction makes the case not only for the dadaists’ destruction of the cult of art, but also for their invention of a new kind of artistic production that refuses to “emancipate itself from reality” or to “disavow the actual,” a new art, or at least a new way of making pictures, tat seeks to intensify “the pleasure of the broad masses in constructive, creative activity (gestaltende Beschäftigung),” for example, by taking “the illustrated newspaper and the editorials of the press as [its] source.” Montage is the technique the Berlin dadaists deployed. 

Brigid Doherty, “Berlin.” 

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ABCD or Portrait de l’artiste, 1923-1924, Raoul Hausmann. Detail.

The last few decades have seen rampant growth in what is commonly called “mainstream” art. Mainstream art-  that term may not be descriptive of the work itself, but of its location in/distribution via the museum, the gallery, the market, the media, the art fair, the biennial. There has also been dramatic growth in smaller venues and nonphysical ventures, and an exponential growth in self-identified artists

More museums, bigger museums, more galleries, bigger galleries, more artists, bigger artists, more art media, bigger art media, more art fairs, bigger art fairs, more MFA programs, bigger MFA programs, etc. As determined as I am to avoid a declinist atttude, the diffusion of effect, and the dissipation of focus are unavoidable side effects of this growth. You don’t need to uphold the questionable form of the manifesto to wonder what has been lost of collective pronouncement when the numbers grow so big and the din is so loud.

I feel it is imperative to point out that in her introduction to Herzfelde’s argument, Brigid Doherty notes that “the affirmative attitude toward the production of a new kind of art that Herzfelde adopts in his ‘introduction to the Dada Fair’ represents a position the Berlin dadaists did not hold for long. In September 1920, Grosz, Hausmann, Heartfeld, and Schlichter renounced in their manifesto ‘The Rules of Painting’ the principles of montage on which Herzfelde’s conception of Dadaist pictues rested.” …Note, however, that the difference between Herzfelde on the one side and Hausmann, Schlichter, Grosz, and Heartfeld on the other had more to do with whether the Dadaisten were striving to recuperate art itself or whether the very idea of art had been so vitiated that it should be jettisoned and something new, wild, and life-affirming should take its place.

R. Bruce Elder, DADA, Surrealism, and the Cinematic Effect, 2013.

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Preussischer Erzengel (Prussian Archangel), 2004, John Heartfield and Rudolf Schlichter.

What artists making “relevant” work have to be satisfied with is the incalculable nature of such work (if it doesn’t slip into the  unfortunate but common trap of attempting to instrumentalize political policy, which is better left to other realms of action). This is the nature of work on representation that doesn’t have the benefit of the kind of institutional dialogues that create a discursive context for academia, another arena that works on representation. Artists, unlike historians and critics, tend not to respond directly to the work of other artists through their own work, particularly when the “bigness” demands – still, even, in 2015 – originality. But artists have done so in moments where aesthetic arguments and efforts and individuals coalesce publicly enough to be heard. The incalculability of aesthetic practice is arguably a very good thing, but shouting – disjointedly- into the wind is another. Eclecticism is identified with openness and freedom, but more often than not it masks disconnection.

…unlike the spaces which are the work of our hands, [the space of appearance] does not survive the actuality of the movement which brought it into being, but disappears not only with the dispersal of men — as in the case of great catastrophes when the body politic of a people is destroyed — but with the disappearance or arrest of the activities themselves. Wherever people gather together, it is potentially there, but only potentially, not necessarily and not forever. 

The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt, 1958

The non-declinist question is whether one can dissent from the cult of art in the age of the Klout score. What would I not give to hear Hannah Arendt’s take on the Klout score…

 

 

 

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On March 16, Eyal Weizman – Director of the Centre for Research Architecture, a graduate program at Goldsmith University, London, and of the European Council-funded Forensic Architecture project embedded within the Centre for the last 4 years – gave a talk at The Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility entitled “FORENSiS: Space and Violence at the Threshold of Detectibility.” The announcement included the following:

Forensic Architecture turns its counter forensic gaze to the frontiers of contemporary war. Forensic Architecture, an agency composed of artists, filmmakers and architectural researchers, uses architecture and its media representations to analyse and respond to political conflicts in Israel/Palestine, environmental violence in Guatemala and their research for the UN on drone warfare in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. Weizman will show how architectural methods and new sensing technologies could be used to expose the logic of violent conflict while raising a host of conceptual problems to do with the thresholds of vision and law.

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 1.15.37 PMIt’s interesting to think about the use of the word “agency” in the above blurb, following my last blog post on Alain Badiou’s talk about art of the future. The word agency connotes not just the world of business, but a realm of collective generation in which the individual status of each contributor to the collective process is not publicly trumpeted, at least to the subject of the address. And this is one of the projections that Badiou made about how an art of the future would differ from the status of art today. Badiou uses the example of the arena of science, and the infrequency with which science innovators achieve an individuated public persona. In this regard, one can also think of other contemporary connotations of the word agency. A successful ad agency figure, for example, may receive the occasional award within their arena, but their individuated talent is important, if at all, only to the client. (It raises the question of whether the Mad Men craze can be seen as a retrospective layering of a current-day obsession with individual personality and hyper-branding onto an anonymous group of players in an agency past.)

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 1.20.41 PMThe Centre for Research Architecture officially welcomes “architects, urbanists, filmmakers, curators and other cultural practitioners from around the world to work on expanded notions of architecture that engage with questions of culture, politics, conflict and human rights.” The impressive work of the program and the projects presented in detail in the talk don’t publicly foreground leadership, despite the fact that Weizman occupies a very public representative position for it. The program emphasizes collective generation, and seemingly depends on the different technical talents of the participants in order for the case studies to be produced. These are the “virtuosos” of the post-Fordist economy of which Virno writes. That said, the approach of the Centre for Research Architecture/Forensic Architecture doesn’t mean that individual contributors to such multi-disciplinary groups today don’t also pursue very individuated solo practices. (i.e. Lawrence Abu Hamdan, a young sound artist who is a contributor to a recent Forensic Architecture project.)

HoB calculation 1 amendedIn its authentically multi-disciplinary and collective approach, in its degree of engagement with urgent spatio-political-juridical issues, and in its recognition that cultural production has something important to offer to public realm discussions of such issues, which other categories of research cannot provide, The Centre for Research Architecture may be the only truly 21st century graduate arts program around. This is not a case of artists or architects trying to compensate for what corrupt government ignores, or what capitalism destroys (the trap into which much progressive art today falls); this is an approach that rewrites cultural roles altogether.

Here’s a short video of one of the program’s cases, presented by Weizman the other evening. The video represents both their working method and acts itself as a form of forensic evidence identifying the Israeli soldier who killed Nadeem Nawara, a teen on the West Bank. The case study is “a field of practice and…an analytical method for probing the political and social histories inscribed in spatial artefacts and in built environments.” The motivation for the forensic study was to refute Israel’s contention that no investigation was warranted because no live ammunition was fired; the work proves where the shot came from, and its lethality through a spatio-aural-temporal investigation of the event. There are credits at the end of the video, with their own hierarchy. But in part because it would be hard to identify such work – today – as cultural production, the main role of the credits isn’t individuation in the sense of the contemporary branding of artists or architects.

Although it was developed out of the discipline of architecture, the Centre redefines what a cultural practice might be today for artists. Its approach to the generation of cultural material is more genuinely collective than the collective label loosely attached to some art practices today. It breaks new ground in the ways in which it includes artists in re-shaping a public reading of spatial languages and the dense meanings they hold, as they are imbricated in zones of cross- and intra-national incursion. Significantly, it steers cultural production away from a speculative marketplace of aesthetic signifiers (i.e. the auction house and the gallery model), or at least creates a new space for cultural production and a new spectator for it. This type of program has the potential to offer a way out of the American M.F.A. impasse for artists committed to critical and politically engaged work, who upon graduating (often with massive debt) are abandoned in an economic tundra, or left to parlay their technical skills in the world of advertising and marketing. In this sense, The Centre for Research Architecture can be thought of as concerned with ethics at many scales, including the pedagogical one.

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This work utilizes the technologies of Computer-aided Design (CAD) to achieve a counter forensic. Weizman’s talk included quite a few different discourses – technological, cultural, historical, juridical, human rights, spatial, political, and philosophical. Several brilliant questions were raised after the talk. But what lingered for me was an unasked one. What seems under-examined in this remarkable work is the question of what place it can occupy at a time when “truth” has so little currency. In other words, the work recognizes that juridical appraisal is not guaranteed to be accurate, let alone just, and insists on the vital importance of bringing out of the shadows –through innovative methods– the occluded actions that cause destruction today (another project focuses on the secret life of drones by reconstructing with stunning precision the exact location of a secret attack). But an attention to the psyche of the addressee, and the reception of truth, seems to be missing. It may be present in the more academic part of the program (I haven’t seen syllabi), but it wasn’t present in the lecture.  And the psyche is an essential focus because it would allow for a more nuanced strategic presentation of the material in the public realm. Ideally it would also affect the very language and imagery and sound of their counter-forensics.

forensic 3For example, by an oblique analogy, it’s futile to try to convince supporters of capital punishment in the U.S., through a medically proven argument, of the suffering caused by botched lethal injections. Those who support capital punishment support the suffering of the sentenced, in part because they don’t identify (with) the convicted as human. To be effective at all, a discursive argument would have to be focussed on that lack of identification. Weizman pointed out that they don’t function as conventional forensic experts do, in that for them the timing of the output of results into the public realm is strategic, and differs from how the law might typically use forensic experts. He also pointed out, in response to a question, that the affective dimension of the conflicts have to be taken into account (in addition to the diagrammatic science). The value of their approach exists at a discursive level as well as at the level of forensic proof. But to aim for truth – or even for its discursive value – one has to examine in depth the contradictory ways in which the psyche transforms it.

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canoe canoe

In the 1960s there was a catchy American tv commercial for Canoe men’s cologne that ended with the homonymically and metonymically suggestive tag line, “canoe canoe?” As with most scent ads, it’s clear that the “message” was not about cologne. “Understanding” is a complex activity.

canoe 3canoe 9The other night, when I walked into the lower east side art gallery where French philosopher/playwright/poet Alain Badiou was giving a talk, I wasn’t surprised to see an overflow crowd, more than half of which was quite young. He has his critics within the worlds of philosophy and art, but he also has a surprisingly strong following in the art scene, maybe because, as I remarked to a friend, not many others are taking on the really big art subjects today, particularly in a face-to-face setting. The subjects that beg to be addressed through broad arguments, which can have an impact even when they are not transparently understood.

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The source of Badiou’s considerable appeal lies in the understanding of philosophy that he defends. He writes that ‘Philosophy is something that helps change existence.’ Philosophy is neither technical and largely irrelevant logic-chopping nor is it deconstructive, melancholic poeticizing, what Badiou calls, ‘the delights of the margin.’ On the contrary, philosophy is an affirmative, constructive discipline of thought. Crucially, this is thought ‘not about what is, but about what is not.’ Philosophy is the construction of the formal possibility of something that would break with what Badiou calls the ‘febrile sterility’ of the contemporary world. this is what he calls an event, and the only question of politics, for Badiou, is whether there is something that might be worthy of the name event.

Simon Critchley, “On Badiou’s Politics,” in” Democracy and Disappointment: On the Politics of Resistance, 2007″

Badiou4Badiou has an uncanny ability to swing from the abstract to the concrete referent and back. When he is abstract, he is unnervingly, intensely so. But in the talk the other day, he created a kind of complex clarity by repeatedly framing his argument about the potential “infinitude” of aesthetic practices of the future with references to the finitude of our capitalist regime, in which everything has its literal price. I looked around the audience during the talk and wondered how many were following closely his abstract argument. And the questions that followed the talk did reveal a chasm between two extremes. There were the arcane and myopically off-topic questions articulated from within a philosophy-specific discourse, which Badiou reservedly answered. And there were the extremely basic (overtly apologetic) questions asked by two young people who were likely artists. Those two questions, in fact, generated the most interesting responses from Badiou, as well as one’s own reflections on the talk.

The e-vite blurb had included the following:

Under new conditions, the arrival of the twenty-first century faces a technical challenge comparable only to the invention of the printing press, or to the emergence of oil painting: the ability to digitize, including basic creative gestures, affords a sort of independence to the term “art” from the notion of “craft.” Artistic contexts of a semi-industrial type have appeared, and moreover, the systematic occupation by artists in the West of wastelands left by deindustrialization has become a major symbol of the period: creation nowadays takes place in old automobile factories and workshops, in outdated giant cold storage warehouses, in the huge debris of assembly line labor, in sawdust, tar, and gasoline. What will come out of this? Let us make a few assumptions…– Alain Badiou

Interestingly, this blurb is itself somewhat outdated in relation to the title of the talk. Surely the most urgent questions about art and technology do not concern the taking over of the debris of assembly line labor. But Badiou’s talk was much more mind-expanding and challenging than the blurb suggested it would be. Attendees received a page of points that he was going to address, some of which he addressed directly, though interestingly not in a linear way, and some of which he spontaneously chose not to address. Those omissions were perhaps performative, and they had their transferential effects in that regard – his talk was presentation, as much as meta-discourse.

badiou1 badiou2 badiou3As with a lot of Badiou’s writing, there was a radicality in his projections of a future art. These were large propositions, and when asked later what art or artists of today he thought exemplary, he rightfully refused to answer other than to say that philosophy should not have to play the role of critic.

The other day, a young artist told me that some of his colleagues had been arguing, in the context of today’s vertiginous social disparities and global conflict, for the futility of the small “critical” art gesture as against the direct action of what is defined as political activism. This is an argument that crops up repeatedly in the realms of critical art practice. The most cogent argument against such positions is the one that recognizes public realms as existing at all scales; the argument that recognizes that both harm and change are enacted at all scales and temporalities, with elusive quantifiability.

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But Badiou’s projections that day so stretched ideas about a future art that they took it to another scale, a scale at which the status of art today (market fetish or critical endeavor) would be unrecognizable. Regardless of how extensively one understands Badiou’s work and the many arguments surrounding it, that form of projection is breathtakingly crucial in opening up definitions of art, and re-casting the importance we accord to today’s conventional art institutions and aesthetic production. It made, for example, the current chest-thumping proclamations for “collective art” seem ridiculously overblown. Here are some notes that I jotted down:

Art will become collective and anonymous in the way that science is today. We don’t herald or fetishize individual achievements on a personal level in science (except for every 50 years or so – Darwin, Einstein, etc.), and the future art will occupy the same status.

Art must position itself near politics and near science. Numerization is the organizer of knowledge and power today.  Art must be the master of númerization. Art must have something to do with science.

Art will (must) become more like what poetry is today – an exception to the globalized structure of capitalism. That is the definition of freedom. There are rich arts and poor arts – art will be a poor art.

In order to be an exception to the globalized structure of capitalism, the future art must be a surprise. The surprise of the infinite. The modern form of finitude is the market in which everything has a price and the price is always finite. The exception must resist this finitude. Must not be distributed along the structure of the everyday. It will not be distributed as we know it.

It is necessary to have a strong knowledge of the structure of power, politics, science. Nothing in politics that is not a surprise is of interest.

The law of permissiveness…Freedom today is defined as adequation to the existing capitalist system.  We need to organize ourselves through interdiction and other methods to resist the adequation.

 

 

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The third and last phase [of repression] is the ‘return of the repressed’ in the guise of symptoms, dreams, parapraxes, etc. What does repression act upon?

From the definition of repression,  The Language of Psycho-Analysis, J. Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis

The fact that an idea’s emphasis, interest or intensity is liable to be detached from it and to pass on to other ideas, which were originally of little intensity but which are related to the first idea by a chain of associations. 

From the definition of displacement,  The Language of Psycho-Analysis

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Piene, Otto, Heinz Mack, and Howard Beckman. 1973. Zero. Cambridge, Mass: M.I.T. Press. Manfred Tischer “mouth” images.

Censorship takes many forms – juridical, personal, cultural, economic, authoritarian, legislative, social (within which resides the religious). Recent world events exposed, as always, national biases for defining acceptable censorship in a democracy. Satirical cartoons defying authority: acceptable; linguistic venting of reactions to events or groups of people: often a crime. But into what does something like so-called “hate speech” transform when it’s sent underground? How does it travel? Who does it meet along the way? Onto what is the censored expression displaced? And does the original object of uncensored hate speech suffer less as a result of censorship? In the short run? In the long run?

Without welcoming a return or increase of the blatant misogyny of decades past, for example, in some sense I found it easier to navigate earlier obvious misogyny in the world in which my work as an artist circulates, than to navigate the more insidious version that exists now, intended and unintended. I have yet, among other issues, to see significant effacement of the masculine as the privileged artistic “type.” And yet little mention is made of the resiliency of such types. Misogyny, though rife and palpable to many, is no longer so easily turned into evidence, other than when played purely as a numbers game.

Yayoi Kusama preparing for a performative event, 1967.

Yayoi Kusama preparing for a performative event, 1967.

Walking through the Zero exhibition at the Guggenheim recently, I blinked and missed the work of the one woman considered to be related to the group, Yayoi Kusama. From the online synopsis, it seems the curatorial intent was to look at the group directly, and indirectly. To identify materials and processes used, general as they are. To locate the aim of the artists as that of “transform[ing] and redefin[ing] art in the aftermath of World War II.” The exhibition is organized around “points of intersection, exchange, and collaboration that defined these artists’ shared history.” Would this online description of the show rule out tangents and associations that are historically readable but were perhaps not historically overt? Must a shared history always be interpreted literally? Curatorial parameters are not set in stone, but they are shaped by conventions that appear to be reasonable and incontrovertible. As much as I love the Guggenheim building, that ramp can become a schema for a particular kind of curatorial approach. You can move forward; you can move backward. Sideways is more precarious.

Photo by Dina Litovsky for The New York Times.

Photo by Dina Litovsky for The New York Times.

This from the one of the exhibition’s wall texts: In 1958 Heinz Mack and Otto Piene held a one-night exhibition in their Dusseldorf studios and released the second issue of their coedited magazine, ZERO – both revolved around the idea of vibration. The publication’s mesmerizing frontispiece, with nine irregular columns repeating the word vibration, illustrates the concept and speaks to much of the art of the emerging ZERO generation. …For Bury and TInguely, electric motors offered a means of activating elements affixed to the surfaces of wood boards…Soto’s preferred technique involved superimposing forms to generate the optical impression of vibration…Like Mack, Gunther Uecker and George Rickey recognized metal’s viability for creating the impression of vibration. …exploring dynamism in art.

There was something about walking through that show, after reading that comment, with its scintillating vibrations…

More scintillating vibrations…

Its pliable rhythms…

Its strokings…its strokings…

Well, somehow something of the female and feminine seemed to have come through after all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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