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Critical Strategies in Art and Media Discussion - part 01

Critical Strategies in Art in Media Discussion - Part 01

Jim Fleming: Are we in a historical moment where art projects with social agency are really inconsequential? Are we at the end of one period of time, rather than at the beginning of another? Is it true that we really can’t make much headway against this behemoth that looks eternal, and squashes all of our own designs on our own futures? Does it matter that we might have small, marginal projects of a certain kind? In a phrase that was used last weekend in the conference with Franco “Bifo” Berardi about autonomy and subjectivization, “What is to be done when nothing can be done?” Must we admit to this kind of historical circumstance?

Steve Kurtz: We’re screwed by the question. When you say, “How is this little play, or little project, or little image - how is this going to help?”, then you’re right, it can’t. I can’t cite a single work of art that changed history. But this is not the right question. When you put it that way, what this question reflects is the absolute perversion of the concept of individualism by capitalism. Somehow, we as individuals are supposed to have this grand agency and be able to make sweeping change, as in the “great man theory” — but at the same time capital says our only agency lies in choosing where we shop and what we buy, and in some cases who we vote for. And what that question and capital’s answers ignore, is collectivity. The answer is not contained in the individual or the individual work. The first variable is, “What is the aggregate of all of these works, and what is the effect?” and the second is, “What is the effect over time?”

So think, for example, of the AIDS crisis, which had an extremely strong, well-organized cultural wing, as well as a politically motivated activist wing. We could say, “In 1986, we had a die-in on the steps of City Hall, but the AIDS crisis did not end — so what good did that do?” Well, not much, if you take that single action as the unit of analysis. But that’s the wrong unit of analysis. The AIDS movement as a whole moved mountains. What it did to change the production and distribution of life-saving drugs was amazing, as was the amount of informed amateurism that actually worked its way into policy-making institutions like the FDA and CDC. A re-writing took place about who the experts were, and whose experience should be listened to. And this was done by people saying, “Over time business as usual is not going to continue as long as this crisis is not addressed, and we are going to fight this in the streets, and we are going to fight it in the media, and at all other symbolic levels.” That’s how you have to look at it.

How are we going to deal with science? Right now, and this is one of the reasons I was arrested, science is proprietary. And even if we are doing things completely within the law, it is immediately suspicious, because only specialists and experts should be making forays into science. The rest of us should think, “I’m too dumb. I’m not a rocket scientist.” Now, is one little project, like something Critical Art Ensemble does, going to change that? No. But as more and more people do it, it becomes a greater demonstration, to those who are trying to think about these things and wondering, “Can I be involved?”, that yes, you can. I am a great believer in the Guattarian notion of molecular revolution. And it can happen at all different scales. As I said in my opening statement, I started doing biotech projects and ended up, actually, with a molecular revolution, with putting up a firewall between civil and criminal law. These are strange, unpredictable movements. Do I think these things can help? I do. Sometimes it is predictable and intentional, and at other times completely unpredictable and unintentional. But either way it starts with engagement.

Claire Pentecost: I would like to add a couple of things. One ties in with what Ted said in his opening statement: your mind goes numb when you pose to yourself “the big questions of life”. Artists know this. You have to approach whatever you’re trying to do through specifics. For artists, it always has to take some form of embodiment, whether it is a piece of writing, or a performance, or a work. Likewise with any move to instantiate change, you have to operate at a human scale. From there, as Steve says, it is an aggregate thing.

But to me the important question is, “How do you want to live? Do you want to live trying to create a different kind of experience for yourself and other people? Do you want to do the experiments of trying to create a more collective life that has some immediacy in it?” It is very present-oriented for me. It is not just about questions like “What effects are your projects having on the big bête noir of capitalism?” Well, who really knows? I would actually venture that capitalism is not as total as we like to talk about it. There are things happening within it like solidarity economies and exchanges, reciprocity, gift and generosity economies that are just not accounted for in balance sheets. Those are the cracks in this monumental enemy that we erect that need to be wedged.

Also, feeling hopeless just makes me mad. The biggest accomplishment of capitalism and politics as we know it is to make us think that what we do does not matter. It just does not even matter what we do. And is that how you want to live? I just won’t do it. So I guess that’s my answer.

Peter Lamborn Wilson: That’s very close to what I wanted to say, so I will say it quickly and just use the word existentialism. Even if everything Jim said were true, it would still leave the existentialist question “What do you have to do in order to live an authentic life?” And clearly for the artist, there is no choice: the choice of doing nothing is not an option.

Konrad Becker: Obviously we are all interested in these questions of collectives and aggregated action, but more than ever art is commercially driven: cultural markets are based on branding and questionable authenticity that emphasizes the “individuality” of artists (while mystifying creation). In this scheme artists do not just want to get sufficiently acknowledged, but they need brand name recognition, listings in the media, and it is an art system that does not only celebrate the individual, but that is based on a “celebrity principle.” Any cultural production is based on a multiplicity of traditions that defy au thorship but the bourgeois myth of the genius lives on in capitalism with the artificial creating of scarcity and individual celebrities.

At the same time I am not so sure about art and culture being so powerless. I would like to mention what is called the military-entertainment complex, which refers to the reality that culture and coercion have been merging for a long time and are now indivisible. Kids playing games at home are doing this on systems developed for military use. All artists and cultural practitioners are somewhat part of that military-entertainment complex. They are accomplices in it. They are part of a substitute of violence that is directed at everyone. Because even a Rumsfeld does not have enough military to control all of us, so there are games being invented, cultural games that we play along with. What is a game? It basically shows you where you have to go, it gives you an aim, it tells you when you have to stop and when you have to throw the dice... It would be too costly to maintain a coercive structure without those games being played.

On another note: I don’t think capitalism is over. Even though I agree, there are little spaces which are open and such cracks and interspaces should remain open. But capitalism and finance do not generate meaning. Endless accumulation has no meaning in itself. It used to be that capitalism has drawn on religion, now we are getting a little more secular these days, so what has replaced religion? It is art and culture. It used to be the Church which was part of an oppressive system, now it is artists who provide their skills for colonizing the imagination by bridging the real and the unreal.

Judith Malina (Living Theatre): It seems to me that we must not get stuck in capitalistic pessimism. We have got to say “We can do it,” because if you want to do something, the first thing is you have to believe that it is possible.

Optimism is an absolutely necessary ingredient to making a major change. I would like to just point out one analogy that I live by: since 1968, for those of us that are here and that are like-minded, the vision is quite clear: the great vision of a world without violence, a world without armies, a world without money, a world without police, a world without prisons, a world without national boundaries. That we see. What we don’t know how to do is what the steps are that we have to take to make that happen. Nobody knows this completely, or we would be doing it. But each of us has a little piece of the puzzle. Because the big vision is a poetic and political concept that we have made clear.

I think ’68 isn’t over; it is going on all the time. I don’t think it has failed, I think it has succeeded, and our being here is an example of how it has succeeded. What we don’t know is how to get from here to the vision. That’s where this incredible individual strength comes in because obviously that’s one step at a time. It is one foot after the other, and it is one project after another. And we have seen today all kinds of examples of projects that people are working on, about water and social organizations, about how to make things happen…. We have to understand that the big picture is there but each of us makes baby steps, some make leaps forward, to make the world less violent or less racist. The ideas are the simple things, but the more complex things are how to organize it and how to create it. I agree with Peter Lamborn Wilson that this is not going to come from a machine but from the people who maybe spend too much time at the machine, or maybe they need to do that. I work in a theatre and in my theatre the premise is that far beyond anything that can happen on a big screen or little screen is the human interaction of the people who are copresent.

Just like here. We are here together. That is the most important thing we have for each other. And then we can tell each other “I have been working on this project.” and “I think we should work on the other project.” and “No, I don’t think we should do this.” and “No, I think we should do it the other way.” This human interaction is worth much more for me than anything that comes out of a machine to us. The thing about live theatre is the co-presence of the people that are performing, that are working the light, the audience — and the integration of that group is particularly the work of the Living Theatre. How can we integrate everybody in the room into that sense of solidarity, which also has conflict and variation of opinion and dialogue and argument and agreement and disagreement? Those are the important things in terms of the question “What is to be done?” What is to be done is that we must support eachother’s variant kinds of trip even if I don’t think this is the most important thing or — even that that’s a wrong step.

We have to in some ways support each other and we have to understand: We are moving towards a vision. If we are not, then we will destroy the planet. We do have a very heavy reason to get together and come to some agreement of how to work with each other.

Ted Byfield: I’d like to ask a question to some of my elders here. We’ve heard various references to 1968 here, but what did all those ’68ers have in 1967?

Audience: Drugs!

Ted Byfield: Any other suggestions about what they had before the efflorescence that apparently surprised even them?

Jim Fleming: Sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll.

Ted Byfield: Okay, so where did these things come from?

Jim Fleming: Part of the mythology of the late Sixties is that it was a time of leisure and affluence, and because a certain level of micro-oppression had through some device been lifted, people found each other in ways that they weren’t previously able to do. My own sense of the late Sixties is that in some measure this counter culture did develop out of something like affluence, with more free time and claim on everyday life. This feels profoundly absent today.

Amanda McDonald Crowley: I would just like to mention that for my mother, May ’68 was not a moment of any kind of revelation in a small country town in New Zealand. It did not have this kind of significance. But in fact I would like to turn to your question about the industrial-military-entertainment complex. But I was thinking of the work of someone like Joseph DeLappe and his interventions into these gaming spaces. He has a project in America’s Army which is in fact the game that gets used by the American military for recruitment purposes. His intervention is small, but it is a way of going into these gaming spaces and taking them over, and doing interventions and protest in that kind of a gaming space. Artists I am thinking of at the moment at Eyebeam would be Steve Lambert and a group of people who he is working with, who are thinking of strategies to actually spend a lot of time with army recruiters to waste their time so they cannot be recruiting. They have been developing a range of projects and strategies and questions that can be answered and automatic answers on your telephone, because the recruiters are obliged to continue to have those lunches and those conversations with someone who is expressing any interest. And as long as they are having those conversations with Steve, then he is figuring that they are not having them with other people they are likely to be recruiting. I provocatively and almost deliberately use Britta and Rebecca’s project, which is about gardening and something very basic, it is very much about DIY and shared knowledge, but the internet and sharing information via that mechanism is an important part of their strategy to get their ideas out there.

I respect Peter’s decision to go off-grid, but I don’t think that it is an option that is open to everybody,and it is not just not open to everybody because they are prepared to live poor and I have been lucky, but the way that societies are being constructed with bigger and bigger cities, not just in America but cities are growing exponentially on other continents … how we live in cities has to change radically. And I do believe that there are technological means that will help us do that and that there are strategies for artists to intervene in that way.

Konrad Becker: I have been involved in the idea of subverting military type game platforms and we did shows about these ten years ago, but I am just not convinced that this does anything about addressing the issue of coercion through culture. Of course there is a lot of enlightenment and fun engaging in these kinds of explorations for all parties involved, but where does that lead us in the analyses of the greater picture?

Amanda McDonald Crowley: Art as the new religion is an interesting take on the proposition. There was an article in the Guardian recently about an exhibition that is about to open at Tate Modern about the top money spinning artists in the world, the Jeff Koons and the Damien Hirsts of the world who are having this major exhibition, but they are not necessarily the artists and the strategies that we are talking about here. I mean, art exists on that level, and we’re living in New York City, and Eyebeam is situated in the middle of Chelsea, which is absolutely the heart of the biggest art capital market in the world, but I don’t think that that is the only strategy we are talking about. I am not sure that the kind of art that we are talking about here is the art that is the new religion that you are referring to. Unless of course, as some of my colleagues are researching at the moment, that art consoles us, possibly as the new religion...

Judith Malina (Living Theatre): For those of us who remember before 1968, and lived through 1968, and realized what’s happened since: my opinion is that everything has changed. Absolutely everything. I think if you go into a classroom, every student in that classroom has a different attitude toward their relationship with the teacher than they had in 1964. And I think in every workplace, every worker, even if they haven’t done the revolutionary thing and turned the oppression around, is aware of a relationship between the boss and themselves, or the foreman and themselves, which is different than it was in 1962. That is a big social picture. You may ask where this manifests itself in the theatre. I want to say: in two ways. One is in the simple way of extending the possibilities. I got busted many times for taking my clothes off in the theatre, and now I take my clothes off in the theatre and people applaud that a woman my age would do that. Nobody calls the cops. Now I can say “Fuck you” in the theatre — I remember when the Living Theatre was closed because we said “Our master is with solemn satisfaction fucking, the only situation that there is…” — busted. That is one of the things that is different. But on a deeper level, what’s different is that in the sense of audience participation, the audience nowadays is very ready to come onstage, to perform…. The last play we did, the entire audience played the whole play with us from the time they entered to the time they left. There were no seats, you came in, and you performed.

The analogy there is that if I can change things in this room, in this petri dish, if I have some voice that can make a difference, that can change the play, that can change the text, that can change the ambience here — maybe I can even do it outside of this theatre. And this gives people the courage to move forward and to express themselves. I think that’s what’s happened in the theatre.

Ted Byfield: I have two questions. What significant spaces do younger people have available to them? They can’t go back and see fantastic performances by Julian Beck or George Bartenieff — that’s not an option for them. That period is over, as is the Summer of Love and the rest — so what options or even chances do they have? And second, to the genealogical critique — basically, that wherevermoney flows is an agent of destruction and corruption, a totalizing environment. The conclusion seems to be that younger people are fucked. If, in fact, they are, then why are we even here? Why would we care? My question has to do with future biographies, not past ones.

Claire Pentecost: I think it’s a viewpoint that is too constricted by your own biography — this thought that all the young people are fucked and that they have nothing to discover….

Ted Byfield: Ah, but I never asserted that as fact — I was asking a question about what seemed to be a categorical denunciation of new “spaces”; but perhaps I was mistaken.

Claire Pentecost: Well, one of the things I did in Detroit was go to the Allied Media Conference which was all about using media for social change, from poetry and spoken word to video, internet, radio, and it was all young people. I was by far one of the oldest people there, and there were very few of us. And they were making culture and using technologies in ways that they were never prescribed to be used. That is just one example where you see young people creating their opportunities and stages of discovery all the time. They are the “digital natives,” but they are not satisfied with a purely digital or screen-based existence. I come across this all the time as I teach in a photography department where many of my students don’t want to do digital photography. They already understand that they are going to spend so much time in front of a computer, and computer means work, and they are sick of it — at the age of 19! They want to use film, which they have never used but are in some way nostalgic about… it is not simply a fantasy; rather it’s about wanting some kind of engagement that is not just through the keyboard and the terminal screen. These young artists and activists that I was talking about before in Detroit, they are not just using digital media. They are using it in conjunction with on the ground, face-to-face developments that people are making happen, which is really the most important thing about using  technologies.

Peter Lamborn Wilson: Ted’s question seems to presuppose that people of a certain age, of a young age, are limited in some kind of historical determinism...

Ted Byfield: Just to clarify: it’s a cartoon, not an actual description of any particular people. And it’s in response to what seems like a cartoonish condemnation of certain forms of social engagement.

Peter Lamborn Wilson: So in other words, you would agree that digitality is not determined by time, by generation? That all the artistic possibilities are always open to everyone, all the time? And thus that young people have just as much the chance to work in non-digital as in digital forms of art, or do you disagree, that there is something fated about the relationship of technology and people under 25?

Ted Byfield: This cartoon is a contrast with the heroic references to “1968,” “the Great Generation,” and the like. Entire master narratives are both being deployed against younger people on a narrative level, and denied to them on an analytical level. New forms of cultural creativity are described far too often as an “entropic white noise” that’s dragging us all down. This is really unhelpful if one wants to work with younger people to perpetuate or reinvent some of the dreams — or fantasies, or utopianisms, or boring but enjoyable pragmatisms, whichever you like — that animate a lot of what we’ve been talking about.

Peter Lamborn Wilson: I am still not sure I understand your position then.

Claire Pentecost: What is the point of speaking of a generation as a cartoon?

Ted Byfield: I’m uncomfortable with 1968 serving as a cudgel to beat people over the head in order to declare their historical circumstance inadequate. I talked about biography, questions of time, the individual’s relationship to larger forms of temporality, and larger models of periodization, for a reason. Do you want your dreams to die with you? Some people actually might, and it might be necessary — as a way to allow others the space to invent new variations.

Content type
Projects Critical Strategies in Art and Media book 2010
Critical Strategies in Art and Media
World-Information Institute
Date 2010


activism anti-capitalism capitalism DIY agency great man theory individualism collectivity AIDS movement science molecular revolution existentialism collective aggregated action celebrity art military-entertainment complex 1968 affluence coercion through culture art as religion digital natives Franco Berardi Critical Art Ensemble Félix Guattari Judith Malina The Living Theatre Steve Lambert Julian Beck George Bartenieff Allied Media Conference
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