Critical Strategies in Art and Media Discussion - part 02

Critical Strategies in Art and Media - Discussion part 02

Fleming Jim
Becker Konrad
Kurtz Steve
Pentecost Claire
Byfield Ted
Wilson Peter Lamborn
McDonald Crowley Amanda
Wark McKenzie

Konrad Becker: I do not subscribe to the postmodernist dictum that all resistance is futile. Where all dissent just refines the instruments of oppression and any resistance is absorbed in the discourse of power. Jim mentioned that there was a different seminar going on over the last weekend and one of the key questions was, “What is to be done when nothing can be done?” and I see this as a relevant debate. Obviously the Sixties were a heroic time, but we must realize that the liberatory transgressions of the Sixties are nowadays being used to sell soft drinks and jeans. This cycle of appropriation of an artistic practice, which at first might seem to be shocking and outrageous, by the commercial market is going so fast that you can’t even be outrageous enough anymore to not be appropriated for whatever other product. Even if nothing can be done, we always do something, and we don’t necessarily have to make fools of ourselves. Some artists have been proposing an art strike for a long time and of course it has never actually been done except on a very limited scale. But what about people who now want to do something, and have capabilities, but who do not want to make fools of themselves just by oiling the machine?

Audience 1: The problem I see is that we are talking about what should be done with this thing we have barely started to understand: the digital, or digitality, for that matter. Could someone comment on that? What is digital?

Jim Fleming: I was going to talk about two possible strategies which I think somehow we’re sussing out here: first, a strategy that speaks about absolute separation from what I’ll call the “planetary working machine,” by which phrase I mean all of the stuff we’ve been denouncing, and, secondly, another strategy which says you can’t really draw a clean line, you can’t escape; there are no strategies of exodus that are efficient, we have to still play off the old machine, we have to remain in large measure caught by it. The outsiders are saying, “If you stay in the machine, you can never escape it.” And the insiders are saying, “You can’t escape the machine.” Somehow there has to be a bridge that allows some exodus out of that old stuff into whatever the new stuff is going to turn out to be — which feels in some fundamental way fairly unpredictable… and that is probably a plus.

One of the things that I would say about the old mode, the heroic mode, the master narratives, was that they, as critics of the master narratives suggest, had their own disguised forms of repression built into them, they were replacing one set of hierarchical players with another. About the digital… I am not sure what to say in a more theoretical way about that. It doesn’t feel to me that this is an important difference somehow. Certainly there are those who would say that analogue and binary are two  fundamentally different ways of characterizing reality. The forms of the binary tend towards the strategies that I would call “outsider”: if you are really a player of the binary, if you really believe the digital, the switches are on or off. You’re in the old system or you’re out into the new system. The more striated spaces complicate that clean break.

Amanda McDonald Crowley: For me it has nothing to do with the digital and I also tried to make this clear in the way that I selected the works that I was presenting to begin with: It was about knowledge, sharing, collaboration, and  working across disciplines. And if we’re talking about critical strategies in art and media, that’s where I think we need to begin with that opening up of knowledge, of shared knowledge. At the moment, one of the biggest problems we are facing is silo-based knowledge: you know a specific area deeply, and by doing that you’re supposed to not know something about everything else. So working collectively and collaboratively in order to generate knowledge across disciplines is where I think the interesting work happens. It’s not to do with digital.

McKenzie Wark: I just want to make two suggestions. One is to shift from thinking analogue or digital to analogue and
digital. It’s the human and the technological, it’s the city and the country... there is no point in debating the merits of one fetish versus another. We’re trying them all — isn’t that what’s characteristic about this particular moment? And in that spirit I want to say: 1968 and 1989. Because to me 1989 is that other great transformative moment. It’s not just that these states in Eastern Europe get completely transformed, and yes, a certain moment passes when popular struggle just passes into another state… but at least it happened. And it didn’t just happen there, it happened there and on the fringes of the American Empire. The whole of Asia was transformed! It’s just that this stuff didn’t happen where we are. Maybe stuff isn’t always interesting in New York or the United States. We’re living in the suburbs of history. Maybe it’s happening somewhere else…

Sly and the Family Stone had that great track “There’s a Riot Going On,” which is zero minutes and zero seconds long, and you can read that as saying, “Nothing’s going on,” but you can also read that as “It’s going on all the time somewhere.” The 20th century is one continuous riot. Sometimes that’s a bad thing of course as well, not all riots are good. So I admire the tactics that have been applied in, say, Thailand in the last year. 2008 is the hot year for Thailand, right. They didn’t occupy just the theatre, they also occupied an airport and the parliament. Parliament couldn’t meet because they couldn’t get people out of the rooms! Now, their motives you can question and you can ask whether it was maybe the bad guys who had the good tactics at this moment. But think about the “and,” and let’s not get caught up in the choice “this or that.” And secondly, let’s not privilege any particular moment. There are many interesting moments. They are just not always where we are. Sometimes you have to look around a little bit to find the moment where there is a popular movement that is using strategies, that is using media — it ain’t always at home.

Claire Pentecost: Right. There has also a lot been happening in South America while the US has been a little bit off duty there in the last eight years. I just want to revisit this thing that I said about the students who don’t want to do digital because I may have mischaracterized it. My point for bringing that up was that they are of course doing digital, they know they are going to “do digital.” And so it is of course digital and analogue although the forms of those categories shift all the time. Some of the students I was referring to don’t really know what film is. But I respect their desire for something besides knowledge and experience limited to what they can do with a computer. They don’t even know what that might be; they have ideas about it, but their refusal of the terms being offered to them, that it is going to be an exclusively screen based life is interesting to me.

On a different thread, when Ted asked, “What did they have before 1968? What did they have in 1967?” the first thing that came to my mind was that they had the detritus of CIA experiments to control the human mind, one of which was LSD. And it is so interesting to study the postwar period in which the psychiatric establishment worked with the government and the army and the CIA to try to create a non-authoritarian personality. Adorno and Horkheimer were involved in that too, from the Frankfurt School (they made a survey on the “Authoritarian personality.”) Many of the people involved in this research wanted to create a human being who would not be subject to fascism, so that the trauma of the 20th century would not be repeated. And they wound up doing terrible things to people. They thought they could tear them down, wipe them clean, and rebuild them, and “make” the democratic subject. And they failed miserably. They ruined a lot of people’s lives. But what is interesting to me is the degree to which they failed; people are more complex and not as manipulable as we often treat them in our accounts of capitalism.

Matt Weiner: I feel that this whole argument is misdirected because there isn’t any difference between analogue and digital, except analogue is older and clunkier, and because it is more difficult to achieve simple things, people seem to appreciate the skill required in that more. But digital is just an analogue for an analogue: it just does things more efficiently, more versatile, and it is the only really subversive element to capitalism: it is the reason the record industry is falling apart, the film industry is afraid… and for so many people in the world now it is the only way we can all keep track of another and talk to another. It was just a necessary evolution of what analogue already was because there are machines, there always will be machines, it’s just that they were less effective at what they do.

Konrad Becker: I find that a refreshing statement but I want to go back to what Claire was just saying about creating personalities because I have a personal interest in this: That seems to be a too benevolent reading of all the mindcontrol
experiments that suggests they wanted to create a democratic, non-authoritarian personality. I have a different reading of that: Dr Donald Ewen Cameron, President of the US Psychiatric Association, was torturing people for many months with electro-convulsive therapy combined with LSD. Famously they were trying to create mind-controlled assassins that even Hollywood has depicted as the “Manchurian Candidates.” What came out of those drug programs is obviously not the truth serum that they wanted to find, which was triggered by these ideas of the Chinese or Russians to supposedly be able to access the mind directly.

At a time of massive programs for the military colonization of outer space, disguised as family entertainment about the “man on the moon,” a huge effort in the colonization of “inner space” was on its way. And colorful or weird as all these drugs  stories seem, there are the more sustainable results they finally got out of it. This very much relates to the investigation of states of consciousness and personality which facilitates the spreading of fear on the one hand, and the invention of psychological profiling on the other. It turned out that a lot of what we have today in creating meaning from data mining and the surveillance industry and geo-marketing stems from the assessment systems that spring from these clandestine drug and mind control experiments. This gives you the means to evaluate data which you get through digital networks, cell phones and our credit
card interactions.

Claire Pentecost: Of course you are right on several counts. The U.S. government was certainly trying to beat the Russians at “brainwashing” and what they did to that end was not benevolent. But it’s not really a question of benevolence and my position is not a na├»ve one. A lot of intellectuals such as Adorno, Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead and many, many social scientists participated in these experiments on the basis of creating the democratic subject. And even many of the CIA psychiatrists thought they were involved in such a project. What’s significant about this is the power of ideology. All of American international politics, at the very least since WWII, has been about forcing an American idea of liberal democracy on the rest of the world. This continuously gives an open field to megamaniacal sociopaths like Ewen Cameron and others, but it also has caught many more well meaning people in its sway. This is something we have to be aware of. Fortunately the coercive nature of American policy has become increasingly bold so that fewer intellectuals of integrity have anything to do with it. [NB: Claire added this passage after we asked her to clarify her point.]

Steve Kurtz: The topic I want to go back to is the issue of coercion and its relationship to culture. What do we do when we go out into the field and try to do projects? There is a problem: There is always going to be re-appropriation going both ways. I steal as much as possible from the capitalist mainstream to use against authoritarian power vectors — and vice versa, it’s an endless cycle which goes on and on, and that’s just part of doing business. We’re all corrupt: when you get up in the morning and use the toilet, you are already taking a political position about water policy and management, the commodification of shit, and how much water should be flushed. So from the second we’re out of bed, we’re already in the system and contributing to its corruption in numerous ways. That’s a given, but putting that aside, I am going to pretend we can get outside the apparatus and talk about it. What is it that we can do? I want to get back to Claire’s point about the amateur.

One of the things that has been happening consistently, especially during the Bush administration, is that the neocons are very much of the belief that everything should be nontransparent and should be run by experts they appoint, and that’s how policy should be made. When we go the other way, we really start to undermine and subvert the kind of coercion that says, “You’re not smart enough to do this, you can’t do this, you are impotent on that matter. It’s not what you should be doing.” To my mind, that’s a real contribution because the worst coercion is mostly not the gun to the head (although that has happened a couple of times) — it’s more that we end up fighting with religious nuts, politicians, lawyers, or these other elements in the disciplinary apparatus that come after us. “You shouldn’t be doing what you are doing because you really don’t have the skills, and even if it’s completely legal we are going to make it sound like you’re doing something suspicious and trying to harm people.” So any time we can demonstrate that in fact you can do it, you’re not going to harm people, and there are protocols you can follow that can truly expand the realm in which you have autonomy, I really think we can contribute — at least on a qualitative level on a micro-scale — to undermining that coercion. The second point that’s really important is to demystify the disciplinary apparatus itself.

Critical Art Ensemble has a whole lecture called “And then the police came…” that chronicles all of the different times we have been disciplined for one thing or another, because any time you act in “public space,” the first thing you realize is how militarized it actually is. It’s acting as a role model to say, “I’m not falling for the fear, I’m not afraid to go to jail. Yes, come and cuff me, I dare you.” And to show people that it is not the scariest thing in the world to go to jail or take a beating. It sucks, but it is not the worst thing in the world. There are plenty of possibilities worse than that. And having a militarized public space where the simplest of gestures gets you arrested for some bullshit law like “public nuisance” is something worth challenging, it’s something worth being disobedient about. [applause from audience] And I think that many of the projects that we do function as a live  demonstration to the public, in real time and real life, that such action is possible.

Of course in Critical Art Ensemble’s case, when acting within cultural institutions like museums, we often end up legitimizing their progressive credentials. We always have to ask ourselves, “Are we going to get enough out of the museum to redistribute into other autonomous areas that it is worth paying this price?” We know the museum is going to take our picture and say, “We have radical work here, we have Critical Art Ensemble here,” but you negotiate for the best you can get. Sometimes you get your butt kicked, and sometimes you do well. These are some of the actions we can take that do have an effect on this coercive control. They can have a very electrifying effect as people see that you’re willing to stand up to power in spite of the fact that sometimes the consequences can be ugly and unpleasant.