maanantai 9. huhtikuuta 2018

THREE QUESTIONS TO PEOPLE DOING EXHIBITIONS UNDER CAPITALISM


Exhibition spaces, from tiny galleries to major museums, all fail under the same basic conditions. I've outlaid those conditions here though three questions. If an exhibition can't give a meaningful answer to these questions, it's doomed.

1. Who loves this?

Museum exhibitions rarely response to this most fundamental question. If no one who did the show loves the show, why would anyone else want to see it?

You could consider the concept of self-love or self-care here, too. If an exhibition space doesn't love itself, ie. care for itself, why would we? Although it is usually we, the audience, who is made to perform the labor of care. 

This self-lovelessness leads to emotional labor on the part of the body visiting an art space. I have to partake in its activities to make the space seem alive, I have to talk about it because its directors don't want to engage, and it is I who must find something worthwhile in the art works as if experiencing art is an emotional riddle akin to a confusing Tinder date. 

The latter point comes out pretty clear on art world related ad campaigns and PR talk where the idea "all interpretations are equal" is always being cherished. This is not inclusivity, but irresponsibility: we don't know what we've done, tho maybe you like it? This is how male privilege also works: You just do stuff and other people are forced to make sense of it, but they are not rewarded for the meaning that arises from their work; you are.

Sometimes artists don't love themselves but hope that curators would, with the chorus from Evanescence's "Bring Me To Life" ringing in artists' heads (or if it's 2015, in their video works). 

Just like art spaces, artists are not sure if what they do is valuable to anyone, but because they have their MFA degree and their exhaustive run as a tireless go-getter networker, they can't stop to contemplate how they really feel about their own workings but keep on offering it on autopilot to curators and directors and journalists to suss out. 

Self-love is not only self-care but respect towards other people. if you show us things you don't love, you're asking us to do the work, to carry your problems, to do your dirty laundry. 

2. Why here?

The second point is made of two equally important words. Sometimes the "here" part boils down to nothing but random professional reflexes. This art is here because I, the director, met someone at a bar during my trip to an art fair and they gave me an offer I couldn't refuse: Say, a dirt cheap touring exhibition by a celebrity artist or a famous dead painter. 

Or maybe it's just capitalism. You need to produce something all the time, and there's never any time, so you're left to operate on your survival instinct, a peculiar state for producing something (art) that fundamentally does not need to exist in the same non-negotiable way as nutrition or clean air. 

We humans are great at putting ourselves willingly into situations where we feel we don't have any other options. Art can be literally anything, but artists, or anyone working in the art industry, tend to produce work that requires way bigger budget than the one they have. 

When a government official, usually completely unaware of the more exciting avenues of contemporary art thinking and doing, instruct directors of art institutions to provide meaningless data or perform cuts or adhere to a new neoliberal trope such as participatory art or ecological art or art and science or artists as entrepreneurs, no one ever declines. We just tint our CVs to match the job description. We think the hoop-jumping is worth it, but six months later it's all we talk about to each other, complaining about the exhaustive, maze-like policies in which we need to navigate.

We never form a front and work collectively to say no, but simply leave each other to deal with the ever-changing, neoliberal, austerity policies on our own. Best of luck & see you in Venice if you still have a travel budget.

We could begin by asking why: Why are we committing to a series of perpetual compromises to secure funding for something that will burn us all out? You could say "because of our livelihoods", but I'd rather not begin this discussion by encouraging everyone working in the arts to find a new profession. 

Instead, we could talk about what could be done differently. The answers are highly different for everyone, depending on the country and context you're working and living in. This could provide an ample opportunity to say no to each other, too. If an artist suggests something ludicrous, maybe our first instinct is not to find a way to accommodate their ideas, but to ask why would you want to do that. 

Now we can move to the "here" part of the second question. If the "here" equals an art space belonging to the official contemporary art world (ie. able bodies having gone to prestigious art school proving themselves to each other), it means that whatever is shown there, it will be experienced through passive consumption as part of a larger economy targeted to exploit our desires and leisure time. 

You can show the most jaw-dropping, ultra-critical work, but if it's shown in an art space, it will only mean that you & your institution are now seen as "progressive" or on the right side of a symbolic battle that is rhetorically tied to concrete battles, while being made possible by capitalist logic itself. And the same goes for the audience: by witnessing highly political work, I am rendered political. There is absolutely no initiative to do anything. Art could thus be renamed to lip service industrial complex.

People like myself, the privileged ones who have time and resources to think about things and the power to choose how to spend their time, know so much yet do so little. It is true of experiencing art, as well. Imagine you see a politically charged work at an art space. You see it, greet it with your emotions, and move on. It can have a temporary effect, but without repetition, it is as memorable as a one-time ad campaign on the metro. Nothing really happens "here".

For example, as undeniably important as the work of Forensic Architecture is, I'm not sure if seeing the documentation of their cases in an art space is any different from seeing neon-colored plastic poles laying diagonally in a stack on the floor because some artist couldn't think of anything else to do and so decided to cherish their confusion as a guiding principle. I dislike saying this because I admire their work so much, but when I saw the FA show at ICA in London, I couldn't help thinking about the gruesome flattening effect of the exhibition space, or any art space. 

It's not the fault of anyone really, that's just how these venues function: more often than not, it seems to treat everything as same. These spaces or display practices strip objects and actions in them powerless. 

You could argue that maybe this requires pack-of-wolves style anarchist thinking, in the style of Federico Campagna's The Last Night, ie. FA is using the resources they have to gather more attention and thus funding for their work which then leads to them being able to take in new cases, and sort of bypassing the question of artistic merit. In this case, the exhibition is a showcase or an ad campaign, which is a more sober approach than the wishful thinking exhibition-making usually is tied with (ie. let's hope these objects together magically mean something to someone). And I think that's 100% legit tactic, as well.

disclaimer: I do feel like I'm looking at this the wrong way, but for better or worse I wanted to explain how I feel about these things, for what it's worth.

Before I carry on, it's worth sitting on the idea of repetition and its power for a bit. 

Art today is broadly based on the idea of individualism. It means every artist has to do their own work and then copyright protects other artists from continuing the work of that former artist. Since there are a limited number of things you can do to stand out, it has been decided that the best way to stand out is to be yourself, ie. turn your unique identity into a brand. This logic is then scaled to fit institutions alike. 

For this reason, nothing in the art world resembles what an international boycotting campaign or a general strike does. The latter two bring people with wildly different opinions together behind one shared cause, then a form of action is chosen and the activity repeated to use the power of mass and repetition against, say, a corporation, or a state. 

By design, artists and people in the art world can not do that, as long as they adhere to the basic tenets of modernism: individualism, autonomy, objective taste. We can't repeat a message because our careers and existence is based on the idea that we all have an individual message in the marketplace of ideas where we compete for attention. 

So if we want to change things, there's no way around it: We need to change the conditions under which we experience and produce art. It's not a matter of what kind of art is being shown if the prevailing logic of display stays the same. And yes, this change would mean that we can't just be producing work independent of each other, coming together only for a thematic group show.

Homo sacer

Think of the ancient Roman concept of Homo sacer as made popular by Giorgio Agamben. Homo sacer is a man who cannot be sacrificed but can be killed without consequences. This is what art means in society: its funding cannot be entirely cut to serve some other purpose, and we cannot sacrifice its freedom of speech, but the ideas it spawns can be killed immediately by anyone. 

At this point, those ideas don't even need to be killed because nothing art produces lives long enough to impact anything. Which is why we need to churn out new concepts, themes, and trends season after season, only to replace them with new ones as soon as everyone has lost interest with whatever it was we were talking about last Fall. 

And to add to that, just like Homo sacer was first banished from society and then labelled as sacred, artists are respected as special creatures whose actions do not really have any real meaning in the society other than to perform the role of something sacred.

So why is this here? Is this the place where these ideas will generate most impact and resonance? Should we really be here in the first place? What happens when we are here, in an art space? Rather than beginning with thinking about what kind of art and artists you want to show in your space, consider this first: How does this space works and what could & should be done in it?

3. For whom, by whom?

This last question is tied to the previous one but highlights a more broader issue: Who has access to this show? People running exhibition spaces are usually nowadays aware of physical access, so they inform visitors about stairs, bathrooms at use and other such issues. Still, we never talk about mental or societal obstacles. 

I could think of who is able to be aware of my blog, and then read or listen to this text, and finally to make sense of it. While making an exhibition, one could think of the same questions. But for some reason, we show contemporary art as is, as if you could just "get" it, simply by coming in.

We won't tell people that, really, you should've read at least three Sternberg Press releases, seen a handful of exhibitions showcased in Contemporary Art Daily, and gone to a university to study art history if you want to get something out from this exhibition. And of course you need to speak English and have the other capacities and resources required to having consumed tons of culture.

This issue is very hard to address. Which is way the art world has chosen to talk about how everyone's interpretation is as correct as someone else's, as I mentioned earlier. This is of course as far from the truth as possible. 

Contemporary art, for most parts, is made for other people in the art world, and the non-art people who come to witness an exhibition is regarded either as collateral or a force of nature one needs to deal with, even though we'd rather not. 

Just like everyone else, most of us working in art-related jobs would rather be just left alone to do our thing with like-minded people. And just like every other human on the planet, for most parts, we drag ourselves into the world to deal with other people so we wouldn't seem so selfish. This is a caricature but I trust you understand what I'm after here.

Artists who have figured out the repressive structure of art-making usually end up choosing more intuitive approaches, or working with spiritual concepts, or whatever feels like the most suitable way out from the exclusivity that informs one's becoming of and being an artist. Even if you start making work that doesn't require those things I mentioned, it's still taking place in a context that is fully informed by such logic. 

Such transcendent approaches might create hope and offer a place of rest for both the artists and the (professional) audience, and I've truly felt that hope myself, too. But we can't not to note that for an artist to be able to make such choices, you usually need a considerable amount of funding and career pedigree to feel like you can exchange career survival for a more laidback position.

And since we live in predatory capitalism, any practice with the best of intentions can be co-opted and turned into a careerist format in a split second by someone willing to do so, as happened with relation aesthetics in the 90s. 

Lastly, since art is about individualism, usually all practices and gestures get "trademarked" in an unspoken way, as in burning candles in a gallery "belongs" to the artist most visibly and successfully practicing it. Which is why none of our aesthetics approaches ever have any real power because no one else can't pick them up lest they be guilty of imitation.

Maybe if we begun from admitting artists are just as horrible as anyone else, and our motives are just as low as other people living under capitalism, we could get rid of the idea that art is inherently good, because this aura of righteousness that surrounds art also stops it from having any real societal power. 

The fact that art is deemed good by default makes you seem good by simply consuming it. It's akin to the problem of ethical consumption: people who buy an expensive "CO2-neutral" electric car are said to then fly carelessly because they've done the good deed already, ie. I saw an exhibition dealing with a real issue, I'm now aware of the problem, so please leave me alone.

Capitalist realism

Art still comes down to "something by someone special to someone less special", and it's this line that provides us with the real challenge. Can we change that formula? We badly need new narratives and relations, since everything we do now falls under the grinding logic of capitalism, where all our activities are measured and then turned either into profit or loss, ecstasy or guilt, inclusion or disavowal, heroes and losers, makers and consumers. (pls don't mention prosumers pls)

Of course, I can't or wouldn't want to say for certain whether this or that exhibition is "doomed", as I claimed in the first paragraph, it's just how I feel nowadays when I visit any kinds of exhibition spaces. There are no better or worse exhibitions, since all art today is capitalist realism, just like all art under Soviet rule was socialist realism (unrelated to Mark Fisher's use of the term, or might be related, I don't know tbh, unfortunately I haven't read the book by the same name).

Even the most transgressive, critical work simply provides the state, or some other entity that is allowing for art to happen, with a license to carry on the wars for freedom, to destroy everything that is not bending to its ideology and will. Maybe the only way to fight against this hegemony is to challenge the very foundations of our production of knowledge ie. what is meaningful, what is "good", what is worthy, what must be seen and what will be made invisible. Or even better, to think of new things to desire for.

I don't know how to do it but I'd love to do it with you since today I am still failing and I'm alone.


p.s. A friend referred to me this thoughtful piece by Lucinda Bennett, and I truly recommend you all read it. Whereas in Finland the problem sometimes is the lack of love due to our love of bureaucracy and empty representation originating in nationalist self-image paranoia, it's good to remember that oftentimes the idea of "loving what you do" is greatly exploited to justify precarious working conditions.

an image of a beetle sculpture sitting atop a square pedestal, with the text Culture is a curse sprayed on the pedestal
Graffiti somewhere in East London. pic by me.

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