Critical Strategies in Art and Media - Postscript 2010/04/15, NY

Critical Strategies in Art and Media - Postscript

Kurtz Steve
Deseriis Marco

Half a year after the initial event in September 2009 and close to the release of this book, once more a group of theorists and practitioners were invited to comment on the future of cultural intelligence and “Critical Strategies in Art and Media.”

Proceedings of that evening, hosted by Ted Byfield at the Vera List Center of New York's New School University, have been summarized or included in this publication. Interventions from the panel included

  • * Andy Bichlbaum, (The Yes Men),
  • * Beka Economopoulos (Not An Alternative),
  • * Gabriella Coleman (NYU),
  • * Jim Fleming (Autonomedia), Marco Deseriis (NYU),
  • * Konrad Becker (World-Information Institute),
  • * and Steve Kurtz (Critical Art Ensemble).

Contributions or digests from the panelists’ remarks follow below.

Marco Deseriis

Improper Names, Hauntings of the Unnamed
(A 20-Moves “Minifesto” in Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus)

Today I want to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of a Hollywood classic, Kubrick’s Spartacus, by reading a short “minifesto.” Before doing so, I want to provide a bit of an historical context on the reasons why this movie has a cultural and political significance that exceeds its strictly cinematic value. In fact, Spartacus came down in history as the first film to break the infamous Hollywood blacklist by giving a film credit to a well-known blacklisted writer, Dalton Trumbo. The blacklist was formally instituted by Hollywood studio executives in November 1947, the day after a group of writers and directors known as the Hollywood Ten were cited for contempt of Congress — and subsequently tried and incarcerated — for their refusal to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).

Probably the best-known writer of the Hollywood Ten, in the following thirteen years Trumbo dedicated all of its time and
energies to break the blacklist. By devising a sophisticated set of pseudonymous strategies that allowed him to increase
his asking price on the black market, Trumbo won two Oscars for Roman Holiday (1953, originally assigned to a front) and The Brave One (1956, written under the pseudonym of Robert Rich). The latter created an embarassing incident at the Academy Awards cerimony. Because no one approached the stage to reclaim the Oscar (Trumbo was watching the ceremony on TV) the vice president of the Screen Writers Guild Jerry Lasky Jr. rushed to the stage to accept the award on behalf of Rich, who he claimed was at the hospital for the birth of his first child. The press did not take long to realize that the name “Robert Rich” was a pseudonym and quickly turned to Trumbo. Further, the incident risked to have serious repercussions for the film production, King Brothers, which faced plagia- rism suits, with different people claiming Rich had stolen the idea for the story. Asked by the production to give an interview to CBS’s newsman Bill Stout, Trumbo neither confirmed nor denied his identification with Rich. Instead, he suggested that since Michael Wilson — another renowned writer of the Hollywood Ten — was barred from winning an Oscar for The Friendly Persuasion (1956) he might have written The Brave One.

As a matter of fact, in 1957 the Academy Awards had enacted a bylaw that made a blacklistee inelegible for an Oscar. The bylaw had been implemented with the explicit object to prevent Michael Wilson from winning an Oscar for The Friendly Persuasion. Thus, the Academy was doubly embarassed when Trumbo won the Oscar under a pseudonym in the very same year in which measures had been taken to prevent such a predicament. In the following years blacklisted writers such as Nedrick Young, Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson himself continued to create troubles by winning Oscars for The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and The Defiant Ones (1958), which were uncredited or signed under pseudonyms. After this series of incidents proved the untenability of the blacklist, both to the Academy Awards and the general public (after all, if those writers were so dangerous, why did they keep winning all those prizes?), Dalton Trumbo became the first blacklistee to obtain a film credit in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960). Aside from its all-stars cast (Kirk Douglas, Lawrence Oliver, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov) Spar-tacus is well-known for the climatic scence in which the slaves captured by Crassus after the revolt are asked to identify their leader in exchange for leniency. But instead of doing so, they shout out “I am Spartacus!” and share his fate. In light of Dalton Trumbo’s personal experience, it is fair to assume that Trumbo’s line “I am Spartacus” is a metaphor of the Hollywood Ten and other workers of the film industry’s refusal to name the names of supposedly communist sympathizers before the HUAC and go to jail. The line was also referenced in other films such as I am Cuba (1964) — in which three captured guerrillas say one after the other “I am Fidel” — and in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992). Obviously, the collective strategy of taking on the same name is not only a cinematic fiction. Rather it is first and foremost a cultural and political strategy which has been adopted by real-world revolutionary movements such as the Luddites and the Zapatistas, as well as mail artists (Monty Cantsin and Karen Eliot), Italian and European cultural workers (Luther Blissett) and Hollywood film directors who freely decide to disown their film (Alan Smithee).

In the cultural field, the departure point of mythmaking strategies such as collective pseudonyms and multiple-use names is a refusal of the proper name of the author as the measuring rod used by the culture industry to assess the cultural and economic value of an intellectual product. Such a refusal, however, can set in motion a certain confusion in the ensuing processes of subjectivation. What language should we use once I am you and you are me? And who are those “I-s” and what are those “You-s”?

1. Improper Names make a tactical use of the space of the Other. They are a victory of time over spatial assignments.
2. The space of the Other is the Proper Name itself.
3. Proper names are names of persons, places, or certain special things. In English, these are typically capitalized nouns. Such names are frequently a source of conflict between editors from different backgrounds, especially in cases where different cultures, using different names, “claim” someone or something as their own.
4. Improper Names also claim someone or something as their own, except that their domain has no set boundaries.
5. Unlike proper names, improper names are always open to multiple referents.
6. Those referents may form a chain, a long network of multiple subjects and objects, quasi-subjects and quasi-objects, that break down the ordering function of language, the silent partitions of culture, a whole political economy of the signature. A bibliography of mixed parentage, impossible to say who wrote what.
7. Reality effects:
8. Anagraphical confusion, as one name may correspond to an assemblage of bodies.
9. The monstrous hauntings of the Unnamed, a part of nopart whose very naming would disturb a proper projection and boxing of the I.
10. “Hi Karen, how am I?”
11. “Good, and my-self?”
12. “Not so sure, it felt quieter before this strange encounter.”
13. This encounter is a trembling that suspends and hijacks daily routines, a wobbling that raises radical demands on what does really matter in this fucking life, a line of sparkling alternation in which potentiality and act change roles and interpenetrate.
14. “Hi Luther, my friends and I have opened ten Facebook accounts all with the same name, picture and password. What should we do now?”
15. “Go and kill youselves.”
16. Too much late to perform the identity game.
17. I am Spartacus! I am Spartacus! And so you are.
18. Let us remember that if we are being executed en masse it is not because Kirk Douglas is fighting for our freedom up
there on the screen. Or perhaps it is precisely because of that.
19. We, modern slaves are no longer able to scream the name of freedom. Why so? Because the proper that never belonged to us in the first place has never been forced upon us with greater force than today. Because what never belonged to us in the first place has never been craved more than today.
20. The name, the name, the proper name outside your domain, your stuffiness, this laughable impotence, your stupendous smugness, outside all the parrotry of your self-evident limitedness. The proper name, ladies and gentlemen, is a public concern of the first importance.

Steve Kurtz: I want to start with a few qualifying remarks. First, I don’t believe that strategy is a privilege of the right. It is a privilege of consolidated power, whether material or virtual. The overwhelming majority of people in the world are excluded from, or marginalized within, such power formations. My interest is in what can be used by many, rather than by only a few. Second, I always think that when we get into these discussions about strategy we are really returning to very old debates about the avant-garde, which were exemplified in the often bitter disagreements between Louis Aragon and AndrĂ© Breton. Are those producing culture part of an intellectual class whose role is to develop and lead movements of liberation (and therefore at fault if movements fail, or fail to develop)? Or, are they a separate group whose work tends to dovetail or intersect with various antiauthoritarian movements? Obviously, my tendency is toward the latter. Finally, I think we are in the somewhat unfortunate  position of not only having the burden of managing haunting notions of the past, but also taking a bit of a beating from concepts of the present/future. I speak of interdisciplinarity and informed amateurism — two ideas for which I have been a staunch advocate. In this particular context, however, I have come to see the negative side of what I still believe to be two very positive and practical ideas. These two notions can lead us to the erroneous conclusion that the division of labor is in fact rhizomatic, where any point can touch any other point. No point is too far, no horizon exists, and therefore we become responsible for not just a specialized area, but also for the whole. For me, this is where the expectations of interdisciplinarity and amateurism go too far. In this context, a more traditional division of labor is quite practical and even necessary. Critical Art Ensemble has always advocated this for collective construction for purposes of cultural production. Each of us has her own set of tasks reflecting her skill set that in turn defines her responsibility to the collective. What is important here is that the division is not an alienated division (as in the capitalist formation), and that difference is a means to empowerment, as opposed to a means to oppress. With that said, let me state that I am now going to lay my burden down. As a cultural producer, I do not believe I am responsible for producing movements, strategies, organizations, etc. I am not an administrator, community organizer, mass action coordinator, party representative, or anythingelse of the sort. That is someone else’s job. That is not the part of the division of labor for which I am responsible. What I am skilled at, and therefore responsible for doing, is to produce anti-authoritarian narratives and images, invent tactics and tools for resistance, explore new sites of contestation, and to some degree contribute to constructing a biopolitics. In saying this I believe there is still a nod to the modernist sense of the avant-garde, but minus the delusion that one can step out of the political-economic context of the present in order to grasp the future. Please note that I am only speaking about roles, and not about participation in relation to macro mobilizations. I am not disavowing connection to large, focused resistant activity. While I am usually not going to submit to them and engage tasks like producing propaganda, making floats and puppets for demos, or decorating the party bus, I do think I can contribute in other ways that I previously mentioned. And I’d even go as far to argue that since the 60s, no movement has been successful without an independent cultural wing. For example, in New York in the late 80s and early 90s, campaigns to fight AIDS worked on two important fronts: one led by ACT–UP where the political actions were created and coordinated, and another developed by independent collectives like Gran Fury, Fierce Pussy, DIVA TV, and Testing the Limits. They, along with many others, constructed the cultural front. I think this division still holds up. To echo my remarks from elsewhere in this book, I don’t think we are experiencing a crisis of action; rather, it’s a crisis of  language. The language of resistance seems exhausted, repetitive, and unable to escape the legacy of theory from 70s and 80s. This is a problem (one I feel I should be making a better contribution to resolving), but we must be careful not to expand it into a general crisis. The situation on the ground is fine as far as cultural action goes. Impressionistically speaking, our tactics seem to be working, and innovation is occurring at an acceptable pace. The one problem here is that of quantity — we need more people producing more radical culture.

Beka Economopoulos of Not An Alternative discussed the convergence of art and activist organizing and the co-optation of the “participation paradigm” by marketing strategists, contrasting the novelty factor in endless cycles of commodification under regimes of “biopower” with the search for more meaningful radical cultural practices. We must identify not what becomes “new,” but what remains excluded.

Gabriella Coleman of NYU cited Claire Pentecost’s model of the “public amateur” (see page 41), offering it to help define ways in which to bridge the gap between individual practices, group identities and the divisions in the broader social subject of cultural movements.

Andy Bichlbaum of The Yes Men raised the question of art and social effectivity through the example of Tim DeChristopher, an American environmental activist and “monkeywrench” artist who bid, illegitimately, on many Bush-era public-land auctions, saving them from developers.