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Prologue for Hack & Host

My role as Chair will have been enacted many times before, even the debates undertaken will probably be similar to numerous previous ones. Yet the Hack and Host debates are happening in a time when the Western democracies can apparently tolerate untruths, lies, misrepresentation and ‘alternative facts’ being told by those who hold the reins of power with no consequence, and apparently with no recourse by those who placed them there in a position of trust and authority in the first place. The use of fear and uncertainty is ever present in maintaining a political and social status quo to press ahead with agendas and policy; when reason is replaced by emotion.

To quote The Centre of Artistic Activism[1]: ‘Art and activism do different work in the world. Activism, as the name implies, is the activity of challenging and changing power relations. There are many ways of doing activism and being an activist, but the common element is an activity targeted toward a discernible end. Simply put, the goal of activism is action to create an Effect.

‘Art, on the other hand, tends not to have such a clear target. It’s hard to say what art is for or against; its value often lies in providing us perspective and new ways to envision our world. Its effect is often subtle and hard to measure, and confusing or contradictory messages can be layered into the work. Good art always contains a surplus of meaning: something we can’t quite describe or put our finger on, but moves us nonetheless. Its goal, if we can even use that word, is to stimulate a feeling, move us emotionally, or alter our perception. Art, equally simply stated, is an expression that generates Affect.’

So to have any effect on the political the artist has to move outside the recognised institutional structure of ‘contemporary art’, to stop being self-reflective, go outside the white cube and communicate directly with society. In her book Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship Claire Bishop warns of the power relationships the well intentioned ‘artist’ can unintentionally maintain in such ‘participatory’ art work with the disempowered and marginalised whilst attempting to overturn those relationships . Such work is now a global phenomenon that has been absorbed by the contemporary art world and its market, often being a spectacle of biennale and festival. I would suggest now that it is not the disempowered nor the marginalised in society that need the attention of artists (although this is not to say the work should not continue), but the empowered and local leaders: we need to bite the hand that feeds us scraps from the table (what have we got to lose?).

Yet as Boris Groys points out ‘A certain intellectual tradition rooted in the writings of Walter Benjamin and Guy Debord states that the aestheticization and spectacularization of politics, including political protest, are bad things because they divert attention away from the practical goals of political protest and towards its aesthetic form. And this means that art cannot be used as a medium of a genuine political protest—because the use of art for political action necessarily aestheticizes this action, turns this action into a spectacle and, thus, neutralizes the practical effect of this action.’ [2] So again, we need to be careful to be effective, to go beyond the spectacle of ‘spectacularism’ and City of Culture hyperbole and the economic drivers of such.

Whilst the above may sound pessimistic there does need to be a certain realism from the bottom upwards at this point in time when contemporary art is under scrutiny in terms of its usefulness for economic, social and political ends. Indeed it would appear that the term ‘contemporary art’ is being examined: ‘ever since conceptual art’s radicalisation of Duchamp’s ‘undefining’ of art, no-one, famously, knows what art is. This necessary ignorance is more usually put as an affirmation that art can be anything at all, limitless, an avowal of the unexpected, and so on.’[3] And ‘Doubt-filled gestures, equivocal objects, bemused paradoxes, tentative projections, diffident proposals, or wishful anticipations—this is the tone struck by most younger artists today. What makes all of these approaches distinct from the contemporary preoccupations of previous art is that they are addressed––explicitly, although more often implicitly––not only by each work of art to itself and to its contemporaries; they are also, and definitively, interrogations into the ontology of the present that ask: what is it to exist in the conditions of contemporaneity?’ [4] This seems to reflect a growing disillusionment in academia with the role of contemporary art and the structures that maintain a criteria for the contemporary arts indeterminacy since the economic collapse of 2008. When everything is subsumed by capitalism then what can artists and ‘contemporary art’ do?

In challenging the political consensus by activism the orthodox view is assumed to be one from a Left leaning sensibility, that of upholding an idea of equity, justice and inclusiveness. However, the term accelerationist aesthetics keeps popping up as, apparently, ‘like it or not—we are all accelerationists now. It has become increasingly clear that crises and contradictions do not lead to the demise of capitalism. Rather, they actually work to promote and advance capitalism, by providing it with its fuel. Crises do not endanger the capitalist order; rather, they are occasions for the dramas of “creative destruction” by means of which, phoenixlike, capitalism repeatedly renews itself.’[5] Whilst acknowledging that capitalism needs to be gone beyond (post capitalism) and posits the death of Leftist and Marxist political theory, the #accelerate  manifesto declares that ‘only a Promethean politics of maximal mastery of over society and its environment is capable of either dealing with global problems or achieving victory over capital.’[6] ’ This smacks of Neo-Reactionary alt-right nihilism in the thrall of AI and youth, IT, nanotechnology and bio engineering, and sounds a lot like the retrogressive aesthetics of Marinetti etc. And look what happened then.

Jacques Rancièr talks of a ‘critical art’ that whilst not exactly activism does suggest how artists could provide the catalyst for ‘a new perception of the world, and therefore to create a commitment to its transformation. This schema, very simple in appearance, is actually the conjunction of three processes: first, the production of a sensory form of ‘strangeness’; second, the development of an awareness of the reason for that strangeness and third, a mobilization of individuals as a result of that awareness.’[7] As Adam Curtis points out in his radio talk last year with Jarvis Cocker about his 2016 film ‘HyperNormalisation’[8], we may be dissatisfied with the present situation but we need a ‘picture of the future’ and this cannot come from cyberspace and internet technology, but only by transcending the internet and giving ones-self up to a cause for the future. What that cause may be is open for debate.


Paul Collinson 










[7] p 142