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By: Erica Scourti
At the moment I'm giving this blog a rest mainly cos of the awful formatting and small images.
Instead I'll be using my other blog, at
# 19 [27 November 2012]
So, straight in with this one as it’s meant to be a part 2; I left off on the exploding-head, too much stuff, too little time feeling that the limitless flows of cyberspace inflict on our tender, over-worked souls.
It’s not just that our brains strain to compute the rivers of info, but the fear, perhaps, that we too have become bits of digital debris on the stage of social media and are thus liable to get lost in the landfill. As anyone who has advertised on the web knows, stayin’ alive is all about visibility in the attention economy; except this time, the product is you. How do you perform your product for public consumption? And who’s listening?
Attention scarcity, is, as Rob Horning puts it in a fantastic blog post about microfame, “a matter of TMI, which has an obvious connection to some of the more salient practices of microcelebrity: confessional writing, oversharing […] exhibitionism, the New Sincerity, and so on.” In other words, TMI in the sense of gross or overly personal pics, or vomiting your heartbreak all over FB, is linked to the general TMI avalanche the internet represents; there’s just so much crap out there vying for a sliver of our attention, that we must shout louder, or more embarrassingly, than everyone else to be seen, and thus validated as existing, connected beings.
Or as he puts it, these modes of self-display “reflect the possibility of a life lived merely to confess it, to share it on social media”, where intimate, private moments become tangible currency; the more outrageous, the more it gets noticed.
Not that this is anything new; reality TV cultivated- and depended on- this mode of celebrity/ infamy via public debasement (or at least exhibitionism). Except now it’s our friends, peers, family and colleagues whom we both watch and are watched by; we are the ‘microcelebrities’. From famous for 15 minutes, to famous to 15 people, to microfamous to 1500 people, perhaps.
The pursuit of microfame, predicated particularly on self-presentation to those who don’t already know you well, seems particularly pertinent to artists, for whom labour is, as Sven Luttken puts it, ‘marked by the inability to distinguish between labour and leisure, […] working hours and free time, performance and life’. Within social media, the artist’s public profile is manifested not simply through traditional signifiers of ‘work’- their videos, photos, invites to shows, press, etc- but also, crucially, through the status accorded by their connectedness to particular social groupings, i.e. their ‘non-work’ life. Again, IRL, this echoes the casting of artists- not just their work- as cover stars for mags like Art Review, or life-styley photo shoots allowing glimpses of their ‘real’ life.
In a collectively written essay called Club Kids: the social life of artists on Facebook’, the authors suggest that group exhibitions (especially online ones) function to forge publicly-paraded links between artists and curators, who simultaneously promote each other so that “the strongest ties artworks in today’s group shows often share are the Mutual Friends the artists have rather than the work itself”. These connections are further bolstered by the strategic tagging of party pics which are posted on FB for their audiences to digest.
Apart from cynical careerism and supporting the argument that labour and leisure are indistinguishable- no such thing as down-time, every moment can be instrumentalised- what this suggests is that the party-posturing and connectivity is just as important as the ‘real’ work, or that the public performance for a FB audience is the ‘real’ work.
Boris Groys has argued that autopoetics, or ‘the production of one’s own public self’ is key in the age of social media, where every public persona- not limited to politicians, celebs- is also a commodity. What the ‘Club Kids’ are flirting with then, is becoming just profiles, no work; ‘artists without art’, as they put it. Or as John Kelsey suggests, ‘the figure of the artist herself dematerialises, become a profile- her most abstract work being herself or her own connectivity.”
Can artists work with this profile, not just for instrumental ends (fame!), but to destabilise/ critique it…and if so, how will the market commodify this 2.0 version of dematierialisation?
# 18 [21 November 2012]
In my last post, over a year ago, I suggested that once you start getting paid to write your personal blog goes up in smoke, which is partly my excuse for shirking. Then again it could have something to do with starting an MRes (in my second year now), reliving my ‘second youth’ (winding down due to the previous point) and leaving the country every five minutes.
A year on, however, and I’m still banging on about the same things, but with some new voices added in for variety. For example, where has Franco Berardi (aka Bifo- yes, even theorists have street names these days) been all my life? His book Soul At Work has had me grinning like a fool, which is ironic given that one of his areas of research is the societal psychopathology of panic and depression, two of my favourite things (evidenced by my Life in AdWords project).
Developing the work of Alan Eherenberg’s wonderfully titled book, The Fatigue of Being Oneself, which outlines depression as a pathology with a strong social content directly linked to pervasive competition, Bifo describes depression as being “deeply connected to the ideology of self-realisation and the happiness imperative".
Zizek has described this imperative of happiness-first ‘tolerant hedonism’, as emblematic of the what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s call The New Spirit of Capitalism, a revivified capitalism which ‘triumphantly appropriated (the) anti-hierarchical rhetoric of ‘68, presenting itself as a successful libertarian revolt against the oppressive social organizations of corporate capitalism’.
Fulfillment and self-realization is no longer optional in a post-‘68 capitalism which privileges the paramount importance of being happy; what started out as a countercultural antagonism to the stultifying effects of Taylorist managerial/ corporate culture culminates now in a burden, another ‘thing-to-do’: become ourselves, which is understood as become our happy selves.
It transpires that this chimera of selfhood requires work, effort and persistence (hence the fatigue) and a whole industry is geared towards the never-ending DIY project of discovering, and being oneself.
A panoply of tools, tinctures and instruments promise to fill the cracks in our hearts, blast away unhelpful patterns and gloss over our lackluster surface to deliver the self we could be, the self we truly are, underneath all this crap. It’s a paradoxical quest for self-betterment that promises to deliver the self we already ‘really’ are.
And there is so much work to do on this soul: self-help books for everything from time management to heartbreak, meditation for stress, exercise and raw veg diets for health, therapy for head-fucks, networking for status, and so on and on in a spinning top of endless responsibility for one’s self.
Summed up nicely by the slogan (well, and the existence) of Psychologies magazine, Know More, Grow More, this drive for self-improvement also involves a stupendous amount of knowledge accumulation/ sifting. In an attention economy of ever-diminishing time, and ever-increasing speed and volumes of information, this creates yet more psychic stress: what the hell do you fix first? Moreover, failure to achieve this mythical state of self-realization leads to a drop in motivation, where, as Ehrenberg puts it, the depressive individuals are “not up to the task, they are tired of having to become themselves".
Naturally the info-overload enabled by ever-increasing speeds of connection info isn’t confined to the self-DIY project; it’s a more wide-spread affliction. As Bifo points out, cybertime is limited to human capabilities, which has only a finite quantity of attention to share out, in contrast to the unbounded space of cyberspace, whose speed can accelerate indefinitely, expanding without limits into galaxies of infodust.
Once the limit of cybertime is breached, a cracking commences, where ‘we collapse under the stress/ pressure of overproduction/ hyper-productivity’, unable to accommodate the assaults from the avalanche of attention-demanding goods. The exploding heads in Cronenberg's Scanners, borne in the early years of the mediafication of everyday life, seem a presciently fitting visual accompaniment.
Speaking of limits, as usual I’ve reached the word count just as I was starting to get excited (or when my head was about to explode, same thing), so I’ll continue this in a ‘part 2’. Sometime next year, probably…
# 17 [27 September 2011]
It’s been a while since I’ve written anything, so apologies in advance if this is a bit rusty. I remember Mark Fisher saying that depression is a great instigator of the desire to write blogs, a theory I would tend to agree with, though he didn’t explain what urges you to stop. Are we to take his decrease in output to mean ‘good’ mental health has returned? Or just that he’s getting so many gigs these days, he doesn’t need to write for free? (and good on him, obviously, I’m not hating). Maybe being paid now and then helps lift depression as well.
Speaking of depression, the world economy is becoming a very confusing place to live in, particularly if you happen to live in a country currently at the centre (or epicentre, to use a fittingly sensationalist, seismological term) of the trouble, i.e. Greece. That status is confusing enough as it is, since Greece is normally referred to as ‘peripheral’ in terms of the EU economy, but somehow not peripheral enough to be a bit player in the imminent collapse of something, perhaps everything.
Confusion mounts as the situation fluctuates daily- one day everything is fine and the markets are soothed with a dose of rescue packages, next everything is doomed and Greece, along with the whole EURO project, is going straight to Hades (unless its on strike). One of the issues is how to make sense of the deluge of contradictory information that continuously rains down, trying to separate op-eds from ‘facts’, and the inability to have perspective of the bigger picture when drowning in all this crap.
This preamble about parsing information is partly what I had been thinking about following the Kenny Goldsmith and Craig Dworkin talk on Friday at the Whitechapel. Kenny expounded some of his usual ideas around uncreative writing and conceptual poetry, but what caught my attention was the idea of ‘filtering’, whereby, in a world gorged on info-mountains of (mostly useless) stuff, the role of the artist has shifted away from creating and towards filtering.
This is hardly new (not that there’s anything wrong with that, as I’m sure Mssrs G & D would agree) since Bourriaud has sketched a pretty similar job description for today’s artists. The term he coined is semionauts, who traverse the info-plane of corporate logos, media images, urban signs and administrative procedures which populate our everyday lives, and claims that by “making them materials from which they compose their works, artists underscore their arbitrary, conventional and ideological dimension’.
He posits this as a political project, since via this transformation of apparently solid objects/ signs into trembling, fragile constructions, ‘precariousness is introduced into the system of representations’. I wonder what Marx would think. If artists are (cod) philosophers, maybe the point is now to change the world through interpreting it?
Anyway back to Goldsmith and the notion of filtering. As he said, in a world of re-tweets, re-posts, link-sharing and so on, being able to ‘point to’ what’s hot and happening is where value lies now. And the ability to point follows from a capacity to consume and process information efficiently and effectively, as well as having something akin to taste.
Like going shopping at charity shops or TK Maxx, some people can do this better than others (I happen to be a pro at the latter); but either way, this ability to sort, filter and re-communicate efficiently is the skill worth having. As the triumph of Google would attest to, I suppose.
I am now thinking about Baldessari’s ‘Commissioned Paintings’, a response to painter Al Held’s barb: "All conceptual art is just pointing at things." So maybe its now about pointing at patterns, flows and connections, rather than concrete things and ideas. Fluidity replaces solidity, processes replace objects and verbs become nouns (and vice versa).
Steven Poole cites this interchangeability of verbs for nouns as a variant of ‘Unspeak’ in his blog (see I’m doing it too…) which brilliantly records the abuses of language in the name of ideological agendas, everything from management-speak to political speeches and fashion blogs. To quote Nina Power: ‘nouns, like material products, appear to be out of fashion’.
# 16 [24 June 2011]
Last week I was in Folkestone, doing a collaborative micro-residency with artist and writer Sydney Hart at LOW&HIGH interdisciplinary platform. On the last day of the project (called 'Vacant Value') we presented some work in progress, showing videos and talking with plenty of interjections from the audience who helped keep things lively and conversational. I showed my video of ‘research’ while explaining some of the ideas behind it, mainly visibility and resolution as value systems and how they relate to Folkestone.
In my video, I capture men – and it was only men- wearing high-vis jackets, while wearing one myself. This alluded to our first presentation (on day one of the residency), which was delivered wearing high vis and touched on the idea of construction, especially of idealised spaces. For example the artist residency as an idealised space for creativity; nature as an idealised space beyond commodification; and regeneration through culture as the idealised mode of urbansiation.
This last one is especially relevant to Folkestone, which appears to be attempting the Hoxton effect on speed, thanks to a local organization, the Creative Foundation, which buys out, does up and rents out spaces on the cheap for creative businesses. This foundation, keen on regenerating the town, is also behind the Triennial- opening this weekend- suggesting they have read the likes of Richard Florida, who asserts that the cities that thrive- economically, culturally and in terms of population- are the ones that can attract and keep what he terms the creative class: ‘a fast-growing, highly educated, and well-paid segment of the workforce on whose efforts corporate profits and economic growth increasingly depend’. This all gives Folkestone an air of ‘in construction’- much like an artist ‘emerging’, the town has a feeling of being almost there: full of potential (to put a positive spin on it) or else in limbo, with fully ‘established’ status tantalisingly out of reach.
Magnifying this atmosphere of anticipation was the pre-Triennial buzz, which provided plenty of hi-vis jackets for me to film as there was so much building going on: scaffolds came down; paint went on, a fountain was installed. Wearing the vest I was attempting to perform some of the anxiety around visibility, which is an issue for both artists and towns like Folkestone- how to be, and stay visible, or put differently, how to attract and retain attention. This topic has been hotly debated in recent years, especially through books like The attention economy, by Thomas H. Davenport, John C. Beck. Put simply attention is a commodity, and one that is in scarce supply: everything is vying for your attention, but as its limited, not everyone can get it and those who get maximum attention are at the top of the hierarchy. They quote Georg Frank, writing back in 1999, who claims prominence is what all present-day elites have in common; and prominence is simply the ‘status of being a major earner of attention’. Of course the problem is that everybody's doing it; just like the high vis jackets, however bright and visible those jackets are, the individual wearers get lost, subsumed into the neon collective.
Again this relates tenuously to places like Folkestone, and its neighbour (ish) Margate (often referred to as the empty shop capital of England)- both towns are banking on culture as a tool of regeneration, with the Turner Contemporary seemingly built for (only?) this reason. If increasing numbers of cities continue to favour culture as a tool for attracting and retaining attention- of high-class tourists, creatives, as well as investors and businesses- and becoming visible on the global scene, won’t the individual cities just disappear? If everywhere has a biennale/ shiny new museum in the future, then any cachet originally conferred upon the town is diminished.
Hou Hanru (original supercurator with 20 biennales under his belt), quoted in a great article questioning the ‘point’ of biennales in the Art Newspaper, doesn’t agree. Instead of saturation leading to biennale-fatigue, he believes that as long as urbanisation continues, so will they: “There are now 300 biennales around the world and everyone is trying to find a new format or new ideas. And this is only the beginning.” You have been warned.
# 15 [25 May 2011]
Having visited my first Literature Festival, in Norway, I’ve been thinking more about value and the different ways in which it accrues in the art and poetry worlds. One thing that struck me was the importance of delivery in poetry. Regardless of content- which I mostly couldn’t understand- it was clear that intonation, timing and projection were desirable attributes, meaning that some performances were riveting even in a foreign language. For example Paal Bjelke Andersen, rapid-firing a list of nouns taken from New Year’s speeches of Scandinavian prime ministers; and Christian Bök where the delivery was inseparable from the content, at least when reading sound poems (including one by Kurt Schwitters). His performance was exciting, funny and verging on terrifying, and as a viewer I appreciated the effort made to convey the tonal discrepancies and variations in volume and intonation.
Perhaps it’s the question of the importance of the ‘good performance’ that differs in the art and moving-image context, where there is something almost suspect about it, suggesting too much of a desire to please, or to be ‘professional’, or to entertain the audience. While I can't find any quotes to corroborate the idea, Peter Gidal immediately came to mind; he would probably claim that it’s not the avant-garde filmmakers’ job to entertain and if the viewer wants entertainment, they have Hollywood.
I’m sure some would accuse ‘video art’ as a genre of adhering to the boring = ‘good’, engaging = ‘bad’ formula. This situation was parodied as far back as 1971 by John Baldessari with his video “I will not make any more boring art”, a self-deprecatingly knowing proposition which humorously and intentionally undermines its title. Perhaps its also associated with the idea of performance as fulfilling some sort of neo-liberal agenda- we perform well, we are flexible and adaptable, we are good for the economy. Artists like to resist this idea- or maybe that’s just me.
Another thing is the hoary old question of originality which plagues poetry, it would seem, even more so than it does art. I leafed through Marjorie Perloff’s Unoriginal Genius while at the festival, and read a chapter on poet Kenneth Goldsmith, which points out that the poetry world is still catching up with aesthetic concepts- such as appropriation, cut and paste, plagiarism- formulated in the visual arts decades ago. These aesthetic concepts are championed by a new breed of conceptual poets, like Bok, Caroline Bergvall, who re-use found language, championing what Goldsmith calls ‘uncreative writing’.
Crucially he also name-checks Conceptual Art, and Sol Le Witt, in both the title of his manifesto- Paragraphs on Conceptual Writing- and in its final statement: “the idea is a machine that makes the text”. As with Le Witt’s paragraphs, ‘execution is a perfunctory affair’; and according to him, the reader need not even bother with the actual task of reading a book such as Traffic (2007), which is billed a straight transcription of traffic reports from one of New York’s ‘jam cams’.
Its definitely boring, an attribute normally anathema to poets that Goldsmith gleefully embraces, proclaiming himself the most boring writer working today. Boring, and by his own admission, completely unoriginal. So why is his work valued in a poetry community which is still attached, not just to ‘the word, but My Word’ (as he puts it)?
Perloff argues that on closely reading his work, the ‘straight’ transcription turns out to be a little bent- either through Oulipo-like constraints or by time elisions which help create a vaguely coherent narrative. Does this show that his so-called ‘uncreativity’ nevertheless exhibits some ingeniousness, thereby making him a genius, albeit one who uses/ processes unoriginal texts, as opposed to creating ones? Or maybe what is valued is the decision to undertake a writing project like that in the first place; the sheer mind-numbing boredom, and effort, involved in its execution, which echoes durational performance art strategies.
Or maybe in a nod to Warhol, whom Goldsmith greatly admires, its ingeniousness is precisely in savouring, instead of ignoring or complaining about, the excruciatingly mundane- but unavoidable- aspects of city living. By paying it some attention, traffic and its concomitant ‘unloved’, valueless language is transformed into something worth caring about.
# 14 [10 May 2011]
I’ve added one last image and video to my video Manifesto Piece; this blog consists of a few thoughts on the project. Duncan White also mentions the video in a post about Street Art, writing that “the policing of street space combined with its commodification, has forced artists to consider more closely the increasingly mediated condition of the ‘street’ itself.”, an observation which was one of the first things I noticed when I moved to London 13 years ago. Even then, London’s street space was totally rationalized, accounted for - either for commercial or public purposes, there was sense of it being instrumentalised to produce certain types of behavior.
With Manifesto Piece, hand-drawn posters of different texts were stuck around London in various public spaces and filmed. The texts are corporate slogans fronted with the phrase ‘we want to’, converting them into demands, promises or unfulfilled yearnings. Taking inspiration from Nietzsche’s statement ‘We want to be the poets of our lives’, and the use of the phrase ‘we want’ in political speeches, philosophical tracts, polemics and corporate verbiage I was interested in the commonality between these different discourses. Each lays out a vision of a belief in something; each tries to sum it up succinctly in a way that will resonate with the wider culture.
Zizek (and others) have pointed out how the ‘spirit’ of ’68, was embraced by the new capitalism which evolved out of this anti-hierarchical movement, “presenting itself as a successful libertarian revolt against the oppressive social organizations of corporate capitalism”. Fittingly, May ’68 revolutionary slogans like “Be realistic, ask the impossible” could be imagined as corporate taglines for a high-tech gadget; even current tracts like The Coming Insurrection contain slogans such as “Get Going” which wouldn’t be out of place advertising weight loss, a brand of trainers, or an MBA programme. These overlaps in language could simply be a consequence of the limited number of expressions at a writer’s disposal, but perhaps point to a desire to get beyond mere words, to kick off some sort of action through the use of this instructive voice.
The use of the ‘we’ also posits a collective expression, whereby the many become one; it also implies the existence of ‘them’, the ones left out, excluded in this act of inclusion. Dave Beech discusses this in relation to Ranciere's take on the politics of participation, namely that it necessarily implies division; an inclusive practice that neither can nor does include all necessitates the separation of society in to participants and non-participants, or “them” and “us”. (Include Me Out, Art Monthly (April 2008)).
Although he is talking about the political implications of participatory art, the question of them and us applies also to the use of the collective ‘we’ by politicians and corporations. Positioned in public spaces varying from run down side streets to shiny new developments, the posters ask who the ‘we’ the text refers to is, and conversely who the ‘them’ is.
The them/ us divide of the public realm is thrown into sharper relief now that ostensibly public spaces like city centres, housing estates and shopping precincts are increasingly being run by private companies. As private developers prefer an ABC1 clientele, a whole section of the ‘public’ is excluded, and not especially welcome: not just the poor but also photographers and political protesters. This tendency towards explicit (e.g. gates communties) or implicit sectioning off of public space to ‘undesirables’ is also reflected in virtual space. Sylvere Lotrigner spoke of plans to create a ‘gated community’ online, while rumours have been circulating for years about a new Web in which access is only free to big sites, with all smaller ones being pay-to-view.
The use of corporate slogans in what looks like illegally posted bills onto spaces normally reserved for public transport announcements or commercial adverts reflects the confusion as to where the public is positioned in relation to the corporate world. Is there any distinction between public and corporate space? And if the citizen is a consumer, then perhaps the posters are an expression of the danger of becoming so wholly integrated with commercial concerns that even a radical practice cannot ‘see’ or speak beyond it.
# 13 [4 April 2011]
I’ve been thinking more about how the costs of video production affect the way its valued, and realized my last post had a pretty obvious omission from the discussion of low budget styles of filmmaking: the No Wave cinema of 80s New York. Described by critic J. Hoberman as ‘unpolished ‘on the street verité’, made with an ‘aggressive anyone-can-do-it aesthetic’, the films had a listless, punk quality which echoes the notions of deskilling and of rejection of ‘specialist’ craft and techniques that I was thinking about in the context of Conceptual Art. Unlike earlier avant-garde film practices, like Structural film, No Wave tended towards ‘content-rich, performance-oriented narrative films’ (Hoberman again) that, explored through loosely told stories “thematics of role playing…and the exploration of power relations and sexuality often in combination”, according to Christian Höller in the Oberhausen catalogue.
This citation attests to their critical rehabilitation, and underlines the process by which ‘subversive’ cinemas (and art practices) get co-opted into a mainstream or corporate aesthetic by marketing execs looking for genuine, authentic instances of uncommodified ‘cool’ and/ or and film historians, curators and academics perhaps looking for something similar albeit not for commercial ends. Something low-cost, unspecialized and low budget nevertheless accrues value, through its aura of authenticity rather than the ‘mental labour’ involved.
This links in with my last post where I was trying to work through the relationship of cost of production to a moving image work’s ‘value’. I wondered whether funders’ desires for expensive looking productions influence the type of work that gets made - does it skew the output to certain types of film-making (which, for example, No Wave would sit uncomfortably within)? In a different context Omar EL Khairy’s article in Mute about Clio Barnard’s The Arbor gives an account of how funding bodies affect the work, arguing that the ‘issues’ presented in it- ‘delinquency, addiction and squalor’ and race were favoured for the narrative focus of the film by the funders and were integral to the packaging (distribution, publicity, contextualising) of the film. In a different way, then, funding parameters affect the style of work being made.
Another angle on the question of value was also offered by Dave Beech’s article ‘On Ugliness’ in this month’s Art Monthly, which outlines both the ideological dimension of beauty and the potential of ugliness to create an uncomfortable rupture into the smoothness of corporate culture. He discusses philosophers like Elaine Scarry and Roger Scruton, whose aim is to reinstate beauty and, although perhaps not obviously stated, devalue ugliness- for aesthetic as well as ethical/ moral reasons. Roughly speaking, beauty and goodness correlate, and their stance could be caricatured as “why must we allow radicals and avant-gardists to take it away from us?”
An association is thus clearly drawn between reactionary practices and beauty and on the flip side, ugliness and radical, avant-gardist practices. He asks, “does ugliness refer to a part of the aesthetic spectrum that can never be satisfactorily incorporated or instrumentalised”, suggesting that beauty occupies the other end of that spectrum. The beauty he refers to, and believes they advocate, harks back to a Victorian belief in the ‘character building’ effects of beauty, one which is all about retaining order and being obedient. Making the leap back into video, would that imply that ‘ugly’ videos have more chance of being critical and disobedient?
It obviously depends how we define ugliness- a cack-handed lack of skill, intentional or not; or a polished kind of repulsiveness. Beech puts forward artists like John Russell as examples of an ugliness that- unlike, say, Impressionism- will not ‘weather with age’ and be selling postcards 100 years from now. And his work certainly isn’t lo-fi; it’s just intentionally repellent in a hyper-saturated, digital-surreal way. Maybe ugliness isn’t about a lo-fi aesthetic but, as Beech says, about a rupture, an obstacle that can’t be ignored.
The work of Ryan Trecartin could be an example of this tendency, combining a YouTube-style, paranoid self-performance (‘cheap’) idiom with a ‘wildly stylized’, super post-produced and excessive look. The results are pretty ugly, in that a bad-taste/ confounding kind of way that both repulses and transfixes, without being cheap to produce.
# 12 [23 March 2011]
I’m going to pick up almost exactly where I left off, since, as usual, by the time I got to the end of my post I realised I had touched on something interesting (to me) but had run out of space. I was asking how we value artists’ film and video- and whether high production values are guarantors of quality, at least in the eyes of funders.
There is a question here around how images accrue worth according to their production values, a topic addressed by Hito Stereyl in her essay on poor images. She noted the hierarchy of image quality and value- a kind of pyramid with a select few hi-def, hi-res images at the top and piles of low-res, ‘poor images’ at the bottom.
A similar diagram could be drawn for videos- big-dollar Hollywood productions shot in 3D/ HD displayed on huge crystal display screens at one end, crappy mobile phone videos shared on YouTube proliferating at the other. This ‘lumpen proletariat of images’ resides beneath official culture, circulates mostly on the web, and has a potentially subversive character, which she links to Juan García Espinosa’s notion of Imperfect Cinema, in which a correlation between ‘perfect cinema’ and ‘reactionary cinema’ is made.
This recap of two previous posts relates to the subject I’m considering here- how the notion of deskilling, a well-known strategy of conceptual art, manifests itself in moving image work. Alexander Alberro, in his book Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity, discusses the turn away from the “skills, virtuosity, and privileged forms of artistic knowledge in the production of art” which became a hallmark of conceptualism, describing Lawrence Weiner’s performance “An Amount of Bleach Poured on a Rug and Allowed to Bleach”, which does exactly as the title instructs, as emblematic of this tendency.
Using easily accessible materials and non-specialist techniques, work by him and others “disavow(ed) inherited notions of artistic competence”, devalued the significance of skill, and was easily reproducible using cameras, photocopiers or directly ‘stolen’ by being ripped out of catalogues (e.g. Seth Siegalaub's “Xerox Book”, which is the main focus of Alberro’s book).
This embrace of everyday materials and techniques, plus Weiner’s proposal that the piece need not be built, challenged the corellation of ambitious art with expensive materials, or any materials at all. Of course, as is well documented, these dematerialised practices still managed to produce commodifiable objects in the form of authentification certificates. As Alberro points out, if the materials are easily accessible, and artistic competence is devalued, it is the ‘mental labour’ which creates value, reproducing both capitalism’s division of mental and physical labour and the privileging of the planning/ design (concept?) stage over construction.
Robert Barry’s question, “how do you present an art that can’t be photographs in magazines devoted to color reproductions and things like that?” (i.e. that doesn’t look like art) is an interesting one to transpose into the moving image context.
One version of it could ask “How can a work which is not interested in big budget production- or indeed specifically rejects it- get state funding?” If a work doesn’t look expensive, because it uses found footage, or explores the signification of degraded imagery (like Steryl’s ‘poor images’), or uses available technologies like webcams, mobile phones and screen capture it may be harder to justify the funding. Particularly when films involving actors, costly location shoots, props, sets and costume design obviously look expensive and therefore more value-for-money.
Does this imply that a particular type of work- that necessarily involves high expenditure- will be funded, while ‘cheaper’ styles wouldn’t be? Artists like Klara Liden and especially Kalup Linzy, come to mind, whose deliberately low-budget, home-movie aesthetic complements the technology used in its production, intentionally playing with the associations conjured up by it (e.g. non-exclusivity, narcissism, self-performance).
It would be hard to imagine this type of work getting funding (pre-fame that is): it wouldn’t be specialist enough to ‘deserve’ money- unless, as in the conceptual art model, the mental labour appeared arduous or specialist enough to compensate for the relative ease of production. Perhaps this sort of work will become more common as funding cuts start to really hit in the UK…
# 11 [10 March 2011]
Post-event despondency has set in a bit following last Friday’s InCounter. After weeks of organization and running around trying to remember a thousand and one little details, all of which are equally important for the smooth running of the night, its back to normal life and the realization that money's scarce and that all that effort was, after all, unpaid. But every email I receive of positive feedback is a reminder of why we do these things: the generosity of the people involved, and the sense of coming together to make it happen, cheesy as it sounds, makes it all worth it.
But it’s tricky. On the one hand I hate the notion that life can only be lived with an “only worth it if it makes money” mentality which reduces every transaction to an opportunity to profit financially; some things are worth doing unpaid. But my aversion to that mentality means I inadvertently fulfill exactly the criteria that neo-liberalism demands from us as workers and citizens: ‘flexible’, willing to work for nothing if we love something enough and fully cognizant that its our ‘responsibility’ to make opportunities for ourselves. Or, in other words, become part of the Big Society: if you really want to be an artist- or an end to homelessness, youth crime and poverty- volunteer!
So by working for free and not asking for funding, we set a precedent that artists don’t need it; but then applying for funding- especially as an individual artist- is an incredibly time-consuming process with slim chances of success.
Alternatively, you could decide to work a little more- especially if freelance- and self-fund your practice, since at least the money is guaranteed that way. Again, this is the ideal artist from the perspective of a government intent on cutting funding for the arts: work more in order to pay for it yourself. It’s a perfect illustration of ‘the system-compatible, neo-liberal self-exploiter’ type of artist that Dominic Eichler in Frieze writes about, the other two models being the ‘neo-bohemian’ and the ‘self-institutionalizer, dependent on public funding’, none of which are especially palatable choices, as his essay’s title- Its Complicated- suggests. However the self-exploiter does rely on having freelance income, which will be harder to depend on as jobs for artists in school projects, community arts and teaching are reduced.
There have also been articles in Art Monthly regarding the funding of artists films, which is bound to suffer under the cuts. One solution could be to give out smaller bursaries for films, with concomitantly lower production values, but to more artists. Wouldn’t this spread the available money, meaning less for each individual, but a healthier artistic community overall? Addressing the issue of how non-commercial art could continue to function is an Open Meeting at no.w.here, whose aim is to ask “What kind of non commercial art practices will there be in the future age of austerity? Where are supportive spaces where group discussion, collective thought, and critical practices can grow and disseminate if they are removed from the Universities or if they become too expensive to access?” Good questions, especially once more and more spaces like theirs start to really lose money.
Another perspective on the funding and making of films is offered by Juan García Espinosa, of Third Cinema. The first line of his essay, For an Imperfect Cinema, written in 1969, is “Nowadays, perfect cinema — technically and artistically masterful — is almost always reactionary cinema.” He finishes by arguing that a film shouldn’t be judged on quality, or the camera, format and technique used to make it (a Mitchell or 8mm camera are offered as examples). Rather, the important question to ask for him was “What are you doing in order to overcome the barrier of the "cultured" elite audience which up to now has conditioned the form of your work?”
Its interesting to consider this in relation to moving image work- where do well-funded, high production values videos or 16mm films (extremely expensive and specialist in today’s world) fit, when everyone can make a video of sorts just using their mobile phone? I’ve run out of space- but will hopefully return to the question.
# 10 [24 February 2011]
Something I have been meaning to rant about for a while is the prescribed individuality that is integral to the creation of our digital identities on social media platforms. Facebook, Youtube, but also to a lesser extent art sites Artslant, re-title, not to mention dating sites, all involve at least some self-definition within parameters they set out (taste in movies, music, books, religious/ political beliefs etc).
It’s another case of choice but within a structure where the more significant choices have already been made; for example, belonging to a social media platform is more of a necessity than a choice, and for those who do opt out, part of their identity is then defined by this choice. Last year I had been thinking about how self-definition works in personality tests and the industry of self-help/ self-actualisation that depends on classifying one’s personality- stuff like are you an optimist or a pessimist? A leader or a follower?
There is an almost comical adherence to the notion of personality as a rigid entity rather than one that fluctuates according to surroundings and circumstances. The cult of personality is also well suited to the process of self-definition through consumerism, in which our particular personality type must find expression through our consumer choices- one of my favourite tests was the Indie test, to determine how ‘alternative’ you are, mainly based on what clothes and music choices you make. Talk about cooption of dissent!
Tying in (maybe) with some of these ideas is an essay by Janet Kraynak, which I re-read today, ostensibly about Bruce Nauman’s sculptural practice but hinging on ideas of participation as submissive and dependent. She develops this idea from the writing of Alain Touraine, who first coined the term ‘programmed society’ 40 years ago, a loaded term synonymous with the rise of post-industrial technocratic society.
Put simply the technocratic society valorizes efficiency and productivity (as opposed to ‘old’ ideals like freedom, self-determination), a ‘business-ontology’ (as Mark Fisher puts it) currently being implemented by the Con-Dems. ‘Optimum’ performance, in the mechanistic meaning of the term, becomes the desired model for subjects and institutions as well as corporations.
Another important aspect is repression through inclusion, rather than exclusion –not enforced by the police but through comfortable conformity, through fully participating in the systems of consumption and social life, where, however, ‘opting out is not a possibility’. Closely related to inclusion is participation, which is actually the central theme of her essay: drawing on Tourlaine’s, notion of ‘dependant participation’, where the subject, although ostensibly ‘free’ to participate in society, is actually to a large extent obligated.
She uses this framework for understanding Nauman's work within this tension of participation and control, where the viewer is both ‘beseeched and thwarted’, becoming willing yet not exactly free participants in his installations. Joining the chorus of grumblings about relational aesthetics she also contrasts this with the supposedly benign, democratic aesthetic of inclusion which masks both the potentially problematic power relationship between artist and viewer within RA practices and the economic arrangements allowing them to thrive.
Amongst many strands that I’m trying to tease out is the relationship between programming/ rationalization and the performance of identity within contemporary culture. As she points out, programming is all about a scientific, rationalised process of information gathering which is then subjected to number-crunching in order to enable its parsing as information, and not just a jumble of facts and figures. This analysis creates a statistically accurate picture of past behaviour and can to a certain extent predict the future.
Then its just a small step to prescribing (programming) the future, as users of Facebook and Google have found- advertisers don’t just place ads in your profile based on your previous inputs for the hell of it, but because its a fair predictor of future activity, i.e. future consumption.
This is the closed-loop variation of capitalism in its networked phase, personalized ads targeting you with ever increasing precision, where any response further shades out that picture and thereby feeds back into the loop. “Free’ internet services, along with ‘free participation” are both apparently underwritten by a contract with hidden costs, one that we are seemingly quite happy to pay.
Currently trading as an artist, writer, whatever, interested in technology, self-realisation, the idea of the female idiot, and much more.