Art Club 2000, Untitled (Earthrise/Liberty Science Center), 1993. Color print. Courtesy of “the artists” and Artists Space, New York.
Reality is a sound, you have to tune into it not just keep yelling.
Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red
Theories, new and old, will continue to fall onto the tracks that have been previously laid. A condition that’s obvious, but appears to come in and out of focus, so may be in need of restating. When Susan Sontag talked about being against hermeneutics, she meant against the predetermined ways of formatting the epistemic habits: “Of course, I don’t mean interpretation in the broadest sense, the sense in which Nietzsche (rightly) says, “There are no facts, only interpretations”. By interpretation, I mean here a conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain “rules” of interpretation. Directed to art, interpretation means plucking a set of elements (the X, the Y, the Z, and so forth) from the whole work.”1
In turn, I interpret this conscious act of mind to be what’s behind the contemporary theoretical malfunction (or, malpractice), that Hito Steyerl diagnosed as one of the “worsts of 2020”: Intersectional Imperialism.2 What I interpret it to mean, may not be what Steyerl implied. And, such is the way of the words. Unfaithful. In my view, this particular “worst”—not a new or recent development.
Today, and for as long as I remember, it’s often easier for me to understand and to believe the agendas of entities presenting openly as self-serving and conservative. The categories and classification operating in the leftist and decolonial branch of the art sphere, on the other hand, remind me of all too familiar: the Soviet project. A Union of fifteen republics, that in reality played out as a project of absorption, Russification, centralization to Moscow, dictum of social realism in the arts, national hierarchies and ethnic gradation. In other words, the subjugation of selected excerpts from theories of communism and socialism into the epistemic brackets of imperialism that has remained unresolved. Sure, there are several centers today, not just one Moscow. A diversified portfolio, that on closer look, amounts to shares in a franchise.
“What can you offer to the knowledge capital?”—is a question I’d been asked last year in a PhD interview, having just talked for twenty minutes about my interests. I looked at the pixelated apparition on my screen, that posed the question, suddenly speechless. Speechless because the question existed at all, and with it—an answer. To begin to respond, I’d have to first consider how the quality of the thinking, the methods, aesthetics and the value of the lived experiences are stratified into the knowledge capital as a terrain. This highlights the emergent propulsion to auto-contextualize, that I will repurpose here. Feeling as soiled in the process as when prompted to perform it discreetly, through various submissions and applications.
Live light, needing only what you can carry, advised my art teacher, when sweet 16, I still lived in Minsk. Many lifetimes later, in New York, an artist whose statement claimed to follow that very philosophy, picked a fight with me over the use of white wall. Having made a many pound resin sculpture, the artist desired to prominently display it against a wash of dramatic seamlessness. Unknowingly I had ruined her plans. Claustrophobic, I designed multiple entries-exists, negotiating with the curator to cut a door in the exact wall in question. I don’t know which makes for a better comedy: the blind spots or the spectral presence of the immaculate, and then mutilated by me, walls.
Martin Herbert connects the corruptive characteristics of the geologic time—which I’ll call here Art Fair Age (still in effect)—to the proliferation of the intellectually and visually toxic combination of sterile white cube and “rich kids”.3 A colloquial infantilization, let’s remember, these are adults. The infantilization, however, not to be overlooked. I’m thinking of Alexey Navalny describing the sensation he experienced under the effects of Novichok (which translates to Newbie). A sudden certainty that he will soon die had entered his mind. Eerily, he said, you feel nothing—no pain, just a slowly dispersing sensation of dread, as the nervous system becomes unremarkably and entirely paralyzed. Recovering from Novichok, people have had to learn to walk and talk, all over again. A more ubiquitous nerve agent is of course Botox. Anecdotally cultivated in large-enough quantities by Saddam Hussein as a potential bioweapon too. It’s prosaic use— to arrest one’s ability to express emotions, thus offering temporary rejuvenation and youthfulness. And with it relevance, or a feeling of.
Irene Haiduk, Spells, 2015
Popularized in parallel to the rejuvenating filler of investment artworks, are two other gateways: artist statement as artwork, obfuscating or dictating the affect (a professionalized regurgitation of conceptual art) and biography as artwork (side-effect of diversification efforts). Racializing categories encourage nationalism as a way of identifying and demarcating privilege-to-trauma ratio, per Intersectional Imperialism, and with it, establishing a scale for permitted aesthetic promiscuity. I should clarify, I am in no way against, essentially, storytelling. Auto-fiction or otherwise. Moreso, I am partial to following and tracing trajectories and lineages, and all the nearby linguistic emissions surrounding artmaking, precisely because the process leads not so much to anything like clarity, but bares intricate opacities, practices of omission, self-exoticization or cropping, and informative loopholes. The apres-canon delirium and loss of footing.
As the Gamestop/Robin Hood speculations sketched peaks and valleys in the background attempting to beat Wall Street at its own game, I’ve been thinking about the work of Irena Haiduk, her Yugoexports and Seductive Exacting Realism (SER). Then I watched the recent Artists’ Space presentations on ethnology of Art Club 2000, and reconnected to my foundational myth by osmosis.4 Thus far in my lifetime, fashion has been the sum total of culture. The catwalk, now reimagined as scroll, the relentless novelty posing for innovation, the seasonal flips, the fascination with our own hands.5 Davi Kopenawa, in “The Falling Sky”, describes these valances as those of “people of merchandise”.6 The subversive tactics have been the fashion too. Between Andy Warhol, Art Club 2000, Imitation of Christ, K-Hole, GCC, Yugoexport, Telfar and Belanciege— a long playing gag across all of the spectrums. The various fashionings of identities and related to it processes of infantilization, were aptly tallied up by Ayesha A. Siddiqi in her essay “Archiving the 20teens”.7 Riding out the dissonance of the moment fully, the text of this seemingly critical essay links directly to the sales of luxury tracksuits. Given that it was published on the platform of upscale Canadian retailer, SSENSE, something to be expected.
“Myopia is on the rise during the lockdown” — reads a news headline. It speaks of a physical affliction but spawns obvious metaphors in my mind. During the Digital PTSD conference organized by Castelli Rivoli, Hito Steyerl launched her presentation by saying she suffers from “no trauma whatsoever”, referring to the conference title. I assume, the preamble related to the point she brought up later on: that in 2020 everyone got a free ride on that vagon, of PTSD. And, she said:
”if everyone imagines themselves as a victim—no one is.” 8
There’s something positive though, if we could call it that, in accelerated comorbidity of the pandemic-induced anxiety and the callousness that prevailed until now. If resources can’t and won’t be distributed, this may as well be the inciting force to redistribute something else:
Hardly enough of an equalizer, making a bad situation worse, for many, and more than just a case of schadenfreude, more bleakly, it seems to have been the kind of affective transposition of an experience, as the necessary motivation for overdue change. The leashed circulation and hardening of the borders, the walls moving in to outline a small territory inside a European city, like Paris, where one had to walk only within their quartier. Phones turned ankle trakkers, isolation, precarity, rapid depletion of mental health, faced with the frosty indifference of the system.
“Parasites are what Belarus calls its unemployed in an official decree: a person who does not participate in the economic development of the country,” — wrote Ilona Dergach in 2019.9 She’s describing the “parasite tax” that instead of providing welfare, Belarusian autocrat Lukashenko imposed onto the unemployed, including onto women on the maternity leave. The first major misstep that dented his fairly, until then, steady position. Sounds wild? Benjamin Bratton, observed that looking back on the ”musical chairs” of the Pandemic repatriation orchestrated in order to meet healthcare and welfare needs, will be one of the most embarrassing things (and in many cases, xenophobically motivated) that we will talk about in the future about this period.10 Serfs expelled from the foreign lands (where people l i v e), back to the manor.
Belarusian philosopher Olga Shaparaga, currently exiled in Lithuania, recently came up with post-national as a speculative proposal for an inclusive approach to the future of nation-building.11 If what she calls—revolution—in Belarus, should prevail. However, post-national in her use directed to addressing interior concerns, points to a conflation rather than what nationality does. Multi-ethnicity she advocates for, per se, does not imply a lack of, or reduction of, nationalism, nor dissipation of the existing borders. As an exercise, addressing exterior to Belarus context, what would it meaningfully do, and for whom, to declare oneself a post-national, let’s say as a speculative art practice, when the nation states have not been revoked? When, like in the Olympics, artists mutate into countries addressing grant systems; in a Biennale; or when applying for research positions, presented with international fees in place of the funding; or when seeking welfare support during the current pandemic. Displacement, said dramatically, or cross-contamination, said more to the point, is not a parameter that can register on these scales.
Jasbir Puar eloquently described contemporary humanitarianism as a protocol of injuring but not killing.12 On the one side there’s corporate hazing, academic frats, market speculation and work visa retainer contracts. On the other side, there is unemployment, isolation, debt. On the side of protest, there are rubber bullets, tear gas, police brutality, deportation. Not dead, but deadened.
“The aesthetics of European Union are frigid by definition,”—wrote Franco Berardi in “Poetry and Finance”, in 2011.13 Which brings this essay home. Irena Haiduk, who “does not produce a biography for public consumption”, describes the final required modification when she tells the story of her career altering and, defining, decision: of teaming up with a German designer. She wanted to guarantee herself to get a reaction, she says.14 However, it’s the packaging and her brand that delivered. Yugoexport and not her body, despite Haiduk’s desire to make vitalistic kind of artwork that relies on the liveliness of the exchange.15 She registered the brand in America, “where corporations are people.” Together, this outlines a process by which Haiduk, intentionally following tenets, avoided falling into oblivion by decree of the frigid aesthetics and merchandising incentives, through performing a glamouring trick. Hiring an aesthetic proxy, embracing the system’s demand and crystalizing into a geopolitical brand, she became the expected. Though more intricately layered, Yugoexport embeds the onlooker not only by splitting the online purchases on the website by class, but by referring to a historic, past tense. Yugoslavia, the former. (Pointing, equally, to the artists’ bio.)
Compounded in all these identity cos-play practices, is the prayer to the enshrined value of the citizenship, in what I call, the Global Cargo Cult. The original term, cargo cult, describes the formation of a reverent practice of an aesthetic (surface, form, packaging) imitation of the unfamiliar and powerful invasive forces, that deplete the resources first, and second present and are perceived, as a phenomena or a deity that provides goods and nourishment. Spruced up in a fresh gift wrap, back and forth to each other, what we keep selling is “dreary reproductions”.16
Anne Imhof accepting Silver Lion, 2017
“It is the easier way,”—concedes the curator Marie-Therese Bruglacher, when we discuss why a remunerated dancer Josh Johnson (also known for his work with Anne Imhof) would have, or need, Nike as a sponsor in a performance for Disappearing Berlin.17 Sans sponsorship, life may look and feel less After Effects or VR, more dusty windowsill. Most of us are not living in the world streaming so convincingly on a few screens that drain all the resources. Which highlights the absurdity of committing to emulate something that isn’t, can’t be, and is not desired to be effectively—there. Berardi pointed out that an aesthetic re-sensitization must want to take place.18 Justifications such as, this moves are “to get paid”, is a dated refrain.
Further, whose responsibility is it, to practice and encourage the changes? Certainly not only of artists. Anyone can fill a volume with institutional bewilderments, a smoke and mirror of oblique jargon and etiquette, that covers up all sorts of large and small brutalities. But let’s go for a low hanging fruit: is Anslem Franke a curator of HKW, or now also an artist producing video essays, while having the job security and a status of his position? Would any researcher be able to show this type of understated video at HKW itself, or pitch it anywhere else? This is not a petulant question suggesting Franke must stop all his work. It’s a question opening up who does what and how. As a recognized curator, and at some point top 100 somewhere it mattered one time, who’s practice is strictly focused on decolonial analysis, Franke is too close for comfort well placed to enjoy a loophole, all the while talking about loopholes. Very much speculatively and from the warmth of a beautiful office. Having the cake and eating too. A particularly pointed luxury when so many artists are looking for support, acknowledgment and just basics, like jobs.
In a discussion held by Garage in 2020, Boris Groys deadpanned that the art institutions are presently experiencing similar spasms to the (Catholic?) Church.19 Shook, wrestling theological questions, trying to do good, modernize and reform. In other words, to put trust in this version of altruism, or to wait for the right moment to break with the fray, is not unlike accepting machinations of organized religion, where blessings are bestowed and conditional. In this impasse, agnosticism as proposed by Laurent Berlant, offers the much needed, pressure point relief: declining to qualify for a relevant slot, choosing to lead with a question with no expectation of a definitive answer.20 Unilateral, cannot be the objective where in-negotiation is the condition of living.
One could say there is room for a variety of expressions of the same nearby subject for its deeper elucidation, but we all know that isn’t the case. Catering to shortened attention span, (digital, social media freindly) product trumps the process. The year of silo-lifestyle, is the epitome of the kind of ideas of progress that came before it, coalescing in Matt Wolf’s documentary Spaceship Earth, a retelling of the 90’s Biosphere 2 experiment, its contamination, implosion, and, spoiler alert, the project’s ultimate demise by the hand of Steve Bannon. Turns out, low oxygen and hunger make people really disagreeable and we are dependent on the variety of relationships in the ecosystem. Nevertheless, the ingraining of the silo-lifestyle proceeds with the new pandemic knee-jerk rescue funding and platforms that largely focus on digitizing oneself into an avatar, in order to pay the bills.
Insist on your presence.
This did not begin with the pandemic. Meanwhile, an imperceptible or undesirable, human body, incorrectly born, bred, processed, taxed and marked, need not be accounted for during the force majeure. NRPI, IRL.21
Metahaven twitter announcement… 2021: “Kaleidoscope?” – a new lecture series
As I write this, Chinese New Year arrives. I send a greeting to a friend. She asks: “Are you eating round things?” Should I be? She responds: “Round things symbolize togetherness”. This reminds me of a recent discovery that I’ve admittedly carried around a misinterpretation of another circle, viewing it as something foreboding. Rather than a symbol of self-annihilation, or self-consumption, Ouroboros, is of course a symbol of fertility and renewal. Ouroboros and it’s many interpretations, like Moebius strip, has of late been making the rounds. Forever—what? Ouroboros, togetherness, is not exactly like holding hands running into the sunset together. Living eternally is—through—things and people, in shifts. The misinterpretation I carried has a reason to have been there. Chewing on the world’s tail lightly, the prospect of becoming soil when it’s my time doesn’t worry me much. It’s being here, that does, where living longer is far from feeling—better.
Referencing their 2018 text Digital Tarkowski and Anna Tsing’s writing on entanglement of the species, in their recent Harvard lecture, Metahaven make a semantic leap to equate Arri camera sensors to lichens, and other organic material interactions, to cinema.22
Is sound a sculpture? Is a photograph a painting?—is important only within a syntaxic embroidery at the service of a specific cultural autopoiesis. This lingual shifts of cinematic lifestyle act as an alibi, where updates obfuscate that the outsourced memory cloud, screensaver sunsets, rain and waterfall soundscapes of meditation apps, are a globally sourced assemblage of cut and paste matter, and the sites of estrangement and contemporary alienation that work at “severing Möbius strip with the modernist scissors”.23 Merchandize and artworks, are a part of Nature with capital N. A part of Gaia, as per Bruno Latour. Or parcel of planetary computation, tech epidermis, as per Benjamin Bratton, in the same way as flora and fauna patterning is—a camouflage as a language. Materially and sensorially, however, the contemporary technologies belong to specific political and epistemic lineages, which tends to employ a strategically selective mode of storytelling, while the controls on these camouflage utilities had slipped their grasp long ago. As Bratton admits, most technology is misused due to decrepit infrastructure, financialization and for political reasons. Nevertheless, less and less do I see technology changed by an interesting kind of mis-use. More often artists choose, and are encouraged, to maintain an obsessive focus on marveling our tools and ability to composite, dividing the takes. A professional amusement park, art as critique that’s also a celebration. Captured, captivated, in a captivity. “The left has generally been nervous about shifting attention to consumption, because they think in doing so that we’re moving away from thinking about systemic features to a focus on individuals,”—weights-in Kate Soper, the author of “Post-Growth Living: For an Alternative Hedonism”.24
Next to the astute writing and lo-fi lectures, Hito Steyerl is someone whose densely tech-heavy and often spectacularly scaled installations appear discordant. And as if to address the disconnect, just before the onset of pandemic, Steyerl ran into some technical difficulties. The crowd patiently waited, congested at the doors of n.b.k. where the exhibition was about to be unveiled, spilling onto the street, sipping on drinks, taking turns to ignore and side glance each other. Later, rewinding on the events of the evening, I decided that the exhibition did not begin past the gallery doors. It began with the wait and congestion, and with the technical failure leading the way. And it could only have been unscripted, to function properly as it did. Authored, not by Steyerl alone.
What if we think of this as another instance of what Jane Bennet describes, when talking about the North American black out of 2003.25 She speculates, the electricity refused to travel because the request was just having to go too far. Power air conditioners with your own breath. Because “people of merchandise” are out of line. Stop the press. They are talking to us, and in our language. Who? Animals, things and energies? That can’t be. But if, suspend hermeneutics, they have never been mute, then, I might suggest, we’d better start listening.
There’s a lot of talk about humor in art, but the generalized tone of the art sphere is humorless. It would be too facile to conclude here I am speaking of just de-anthropomorphizing. I, in fact, cannot speak on behalf of the rocks, or electricity. Anthropomorphic, happens to be my only perception, as shaped by the culture I am from, and live in. I mean to say listening as in, feeling that full range of emotions elicited by the present levels of industrialization, professionalization and branding incentives, that conjure up the Global Cargo Cult cos-play of identities as a gateway to participation. Listening, to the winds, privileging artistic processes that narrow relational experiences, forms of expressions and knowledge, and through the lens of which, the structural changes—that so many seem to say they want—are going to amount to all but an autotune remix.
Inverting the Parasite tax, I’m maneuvering for valuing and compensation for the practice of reduced emissions, for not contributing to the economy, not digitizing. Could, lived experience be knowledge capital? Could, an oral tradition? I have other ideas, but anyway, enough about me.
Anastasia Kolas, 2021
1 Susan Sontag—Against Interpretation —1966
2 Hito Steyerl—Castello di Rivoli, Digital PTSD conference —2020
3 Martin Herbert—What the ‘White Cube’ Means Now—Art Review—2020
4 Intent/Content/ Form—six takes on ART CLUB2000—Artists Space, New York—2021
5 When You Type In The URL ‘Relentless.com,’ You’ll Be Surprised Where It Takes You—Business Insider—2014
6 Dawi Kopenawa/Bruce Albert — The Falling Sky, pp.Vii, and 326-341—2014
7 Archiving The 20teens With Ayesha A. Siddiqi—On Track Pant Globalism, Alternative Nationalisms, Crisis Palettes, And More—SSENSE—2019
8 Hito Steyerl—ibid
10 Ilona Dergach—Applause—Nacre Journal—2019
11 Olga Shparaga—For a Belarusian res publica!—Osteuropa, 24 August 2020
12 Jasbir Puir— Recursive Colonialism Seminar—2020
13 Franco (Bifo) Berardi—Poetry and Finance, p.65—2011
14 Irena Haiduk and Ena Grozdanić in conversation—Seductive Exacting Realism— Mousse Magazine
15 Irena Haiduk—Documenta 14, interview—2018
16 Suely Rolnik—The Spheres of Insurrection: Suggestions for Combating the Pimping of Life – e-flux, Journal #86, November 2017
17 Curatorial Concerns: Marie-Therese Bruglacher —Disappearing Berlin—Nacre Journal—2019
18 Franco (Bifo) Berardi—Poetry and Finance, p.55—2011
19 Boris Groys in conversation with Arsenij Zhiljaev—Garage Moscow—2020
20 Lauren Berlant—The commons: Infrastructures for troubling times—2016
21 “No Real Person Involved”, abbreviation, referring to term describing, sex and migrant workers, abused or missing—used in Succession, TV Series, Final Episode, Season 2
22 Metahaven—“Inhabitant”—Harvard GSD lecture—2020
23 Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro—The Ends of the Worlds, p.113—2016
24 Kate Soper Talks to Kate Aronoff About an “Alternative Hedonism”—Giving Up Capitalism Doesn’t Mean Giving Up Pleasure—LitHub
25 Jane Bennett – Vibrant Matter, pp.20-38 – 2010