Introductory statement 04 - Claire Pentecost

Critical Strategies in Art and Media - Introductory statement 04 - Claire Pentecost

Pentecost Claire

I’ll start with a dream I had this morning. It was one of those dreams from which you only remember a handful of key words and ideas, and it was clearly a result of my unconscious percolating the concerns of this conference. I woke up with a distinct phrase in my mind: “The Four Bargains of the Apocalypse.” A kind of dream knowledge told me that this referred to the four devil’s bargains that have come to characterize our daily lives. When I woke, all I had left were the names of the bad bargains but I think I can elaborate their meaning here.

The first one is “Sloanism.” Alfred Sloan was the chairman of General Motors who introduced in the 1930s the idea of planned obsolescence, mostly via new styling features and colors new each year, to make people desire a new model, so the good old standard Model T that was coming off the factory lines was not good enough anymore. He also introduced the idea of marketing to different classes: marketing an increasingly deluxe automobile to Americans as they rose higher on the social ladder. Sloanism is arguably the beginning of Post-Fordism even as early as the Thirties, because it’s the beginning of cognitive capital and immaterial labor like design driving the economy, the primacy of marketing over production. Sloanism is also a feature of avant-gardism in the art world: a cycling and recycling mandate to produce novelties, especially for a particular class of consumers.

The second of the bad bargains is “cyber time,” time inside of simulated worlds, paced by machines. I know that I live a lot of my life inside a computer and the sense of time there is at once too fast, never enough, and always delaying other kinds of engagement. It is often about postponing something.

The third one is “vehicular space”: mobile, privatized, personal space, which also connects to time, in the sense of always being in motion. I think that the car and the computer are the two principal agents of our passivity. They represent all the ways that we have become more and more passive in daily life. And the car stands for “getting there fast,” but also for “postponing being somewhere,” being really there. And this is an especially bad bargain since the whole network of motoring pods depends on fossil fuels.

The fourth one is “semio-capitalism,” or “living as image,” living your life as a series of images, which we all are induced to do. Most of the images picture us as consumers, never complete but perennially desiring the modes of being that live in the images. And the image surface across which we project our limited vitality was made by someone, but not by us. This as you know is also called spectacle.

I think my dreaming unconscious called these familiar concepts bargains because we are definitely compensated by them. Accustomed to these compensations, we find it difficult to change.

Since 1997 I have spent a lot of my time and attention researching the corporate-industrial food system and doing some documentary work and analyses, writing and lecturing. Part of what is interesting about this to me now is how much has changed within those twelve years. I started that line of research in 1997 when I became interested in biotechnology; we were eating genetically modified foods and nobody knew it. This led me into the global industrial food system, which I found to be opaque, complicated, almost entirely controlled by very secretive corporations, and managing to attract little attention. When Italked about my work and tried to explain it, people would say: “Oh… kind of a downer….” They didn’t want to hear about it.

Now, twelve years later, we have an explosion of books and films and organizations, charismatic pundits and activist farmers regularly publicizing the depredations and the alternatives. This shift fascinates me because what I’m interested in is social change; that is what frames my remarks here. I have a real interest. It’s not just about the novelty in art, where and how we can find new forms of intensity and surprise. I’m fascinated by the question of how people change. Are we able to create the conditions of the kinds of changes that we want? Is there any room for autonomy in that process?

I was at the Bifo (Franco Berardi) seminar last weekend where it occurred to me that in the kind of society that capitalism has produced for us, there is no inside anymore. We often hear that there is no “outside” to capitalism and meanwhile people still talk about whether one should work on the “inside,” i.e., with the system, or from the “outside,” meaning against it. But suddenly it looks like capitalism has so thinned, has so decimated social structures that in some ways there is no inside: society is rapidly being hollowed out. To put it another way, the inside of our social structures is so gutted that the inside is more like an outside. The two metaphorical spaces are collapsing together. So in many places you can go deeper to the heart of our society and find a kind of exteriority, or room to build an alternative kind of social space.

This summer, friends of mine and I got together as part of an ongoing project called “Continental Drift.” I live in Chicago, and several of us who find ourselves in different locations in the Midwest have been getting together to explore our region. In July we went to Detroit, partly because we wanted to visit the epicenter of the hollowing-out of what was once the workshop of the world, America as the model of prosperity and production. It is a place where the center appears to be completely eroded. Jon Brummit,an artist who lives there, suggested to me that Detroit is like “smooth space,“ so I’ve been thinking of it as a “smoothing of striated space.”

Deleuze and Guattari develop these concepts of “smooth space” and “striated space” via a series of metaphors drawn from music, maritime history, geography, mathematics and textiles. For example, using a textile metaphor, striated space would be represented by weaving, in which we have an orderly arrangement of threads based on a grid; smooth space, on the other hand, would be best pictured as felt, a continuous, amorphous material in which there is only entanglement of fibers and adhesion at a microscale. But even as they propose to us analytic oppositions, Deleuze and Guattari remind us that these states always exist in mixture; the successive terms of the opposition fail to coincide entirely. So, the smooth and the striate proceed, become alternately more like themselves and, reversing, more like each other and so on. The smooth is captured and organized by the striate; the striate dissolves into the smooth. So we might say that the capturing and organization of turf that was once swamp and prairie to build a city organized by streets and vertical structures housing the offices and factories of production was a striation of smooth space. Likewise the disassembly of such a city like Detroit into a network of empty lots and abandoned buildings is a smoothing of the striate.

Being in a place where so much infrastructure has been eroded prompted me to wonder - what would a smooth social space look like? In this sense, the experience of Detroit was highly interesting because we met up with a lot of different organizations working there. If you look at the center of Detroit from a Google-Maps-eye-view, you will see acres of green space: abandoned and/ or demolished housing, businesses, and empty lots. On the ground, we visited all these people that are creating their own society within Detroit, often using their own homes as a base. One was a place called Hush House, which is a Black cultural museum and education center where they were making food for people and installing a low power radio station. We visited a place called the Peace Zone, consisting of a community center, a garden of the native plants extant in the time of Detroit’s founder, Cadillac (1701), a fledging business district and a place where they have erected billboards on which people are invited to write their dreams and hopes. We also saw the “Heidelberg Project” created by Tyree Guyton, who used several blocks of derelict houses as the substrate for his artwork. Another one like that is Dabl’s African Bead Gallery and Museum, where the artist has painted the buildings in fantastic patterns incorporating countless mirror fragments.

Detroit has the largest system of urban farms and gardens anywhere in the country, some of which are teaching models that also feed people. They are creating a kind of social structure and they are also creating their own aesthetic. After decades of structural abandonment they seem to understand like few Americans do, that no one is going to do it for them. In Detroit, we were struck by a stubborn optimism that I have not actually encountered anywhere else in this country. I was talking to Konrad about this last week, and he said:“Oh no, you are not going to talk about ’rising from the ruins,’ are you?” I would of course like to avoid being that kind of cliché, however, I am very interested in optimism. It is part of how people feel there is a future, a tomorrow which might look different, and it is certainly a requisite to the agency necessary to directing change. As you can see from my images of Detroit, material conditions are utterly impoverished in the very places where people are doggedly creating new social and material support systems. One has to have a powerful imagination to see what they are talking about in these destitute spaces.

So we are returning to the question: What are the conditions of optimism? Recognizing that readers would be seduced by the open features of smooth space, Deleuze and Guattari state explicitly:

“Of course, smooth spaces in themselves are not liberatory. But the struggle is changed or displaced in them, and life reconstitutes its stakes, confronts new obstacles, invents new paces, switches adversaries. Never believe that a smooth space will suffice to save us.”

I think it is precisely when “the struggle is changed or displaced…and life reconstitutes its stakes, confronts new obstacles, invents new paces, switches adversaries” that optimism sees a chance. Especially when people feel themselves active in that reconstitution of stakes, invention of new paces and reassignment of adversaries — as well as allies.

For another suggestion about optimism, I want to quote Lauren Berlant who writes about public affect, about emotion in the public sphere. In a forthcoming book,1 she writes:

“All attachment is optimistic if we describe optimism as the force that brings you out of yourself and into the world in order to bring closer the satisfying something that you cannot generate on your own.”

With apologies to Berlant, I’m inclined to push this passage a little bit for my own purposes, inverting it to find an axiom: if all attachment is optimistic, does it follow that attachment is a condition of optimism? If so, what are we attached to? The people we met in Detroit were deeply attached to a set of ideals, each other, and the place where they lived. So how fares our capacity to be attached to something? In Minima Moralia, Adorno says,

“…the house is past…. The best mode of conduct in the face of all this, still seems an uncommitted, suspended one…. It is part of morality, not to be at home in one’s home.”

We can understand how this way of thinking emerges in the mid-20th century, when the valorization of tribe and identity based on race, nation, and family had produced such cataclysms. I am interested in the degree to which this has been a guiding principle for the intellectual and the artist.2

It seems that our paradigm of the artist has gone very far in this direction, so far that the artist, whose success is now measured by his savvy manipulation of career and market, is no longer visibly attached to life itself. Of course there are many kinds of artists and artistic practice, and clearly this paradigm is shifting: everywhere we see artists finding ways to orient their work to specific ethico-aesthetic attachments, perhaps even increasingly reconciled to being at home in the world.

One of the things I’m attached to is learning. And one of the models I’ve developed theoretically is that of the artist as the public amateur. Not the public intellectual, which is usually a position of mastery and critique, but the public amateur, a position of inquiry and experimentation. The amateur is the learner who is motivated by love or by personal attachment, and in this case, who consents to learn in public so that the very conditions of knowledge production can be interrogated. The public amateur takes the initiative to question something in the province of a discipline in which she is not conventionally qualified, acquires knowledge through unofficial means, and assumes the authority to offer interpretations of that knowledge, especially in regard to decisions that affect our lives. Critical Art Ensemble is a great example of public amateurism because they go into specialized fields where decisions are being made for us with disastrous consequences and they perform a kind of public learning, public so that the knowledge in question and its applications can be evaluated.

The point is not to replace specialists, but to open the hermetic quarters of specialized knowledge to public forms of interrogation. So it is almost an anarchist position: people should be entitled to learn what they need to learn and to contribute to the decisions that affect them. It’s a question of cognitive sovereignty. These positions and methods: amateur research, self experimentation, collective experimentation, unregulated discourse, exposure of interest and transparency, collaboration with non-conforming scientists or experts, are meant to invade specialties with questions of value, questions that most specialization is designed to eliminate. Since art is a realm where values are debated, one of the points of the artist as public amateur is to perform learning publicly to bring the question of value to the production of knowledge.

The project I alluded to earlier, “Continental Drift,” was a series of seminars, mostly at 16 Beaver in New York, but also one in Zagreb (the only one that was actually funded) and then a ten-day traveling drift through the Midwest. These were self-organized, collective learning sessions about our world, particularly about the scales of our existence and how they interdigitate: the intimate, the urban or local, the national, the continental, and the global. Our effort was to trace the micro-cartographies of difference, deviance, refusal and dissent, to identify and articulate the cultural practices with the greatest transformative political potentials. On our Midwest drift, we were looking for alternative culture and planned different meetings, screenings and visits in order to locate global forces in daily life and identify something one of our associates called the “Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor.”

One of the things we found was Dreamtime Village, an intentional community, anarchist-publishing and permaculture site which I actually learnt about first in 1993 from Peter Lamborn Wilson’s radio show. We also visited organic farms and cooperatives, like the Organic Valley Cooperative and the intensive urban farming project known as Growing Power, whose director, Will Allen, just got a MacArthur award. They are constantly experimenting and inventing with how to produce a lot of highly nutritious food in small space. What we found was that these sorts of efforts are starting to create new scales of existence: people are involved in this type of local activity, not as isolationist retreat, but with a sophisticated understanding of how their local activity fits into a set of global pressures and complications. What we saw was a mash up of old binaries like “the global and the local,” “the cosmopolitan and the attached,” “the intellectual and the experiential,” “the critical and the creative.” A space that I help run with a lot of other people in Chicagois called Mess Hall, which is an example of the type of space where the most promising culture is happening right now. It is an experimental cultural space in a storefront that a landlord rents to a group of artists for a dollar a year. Everything we do there is free: it is a completely non-monetary experiment. It is an open structure which is used by people from Chicago and from abroad to do projects that wouldn’t be given a chance in a strictly market driven world. About ten of us run it together, and decision-making and the burden of running it are distributed in a non-hierarchical way. And of course there are countless spaces like Mess Hall, profoundly localized, widely networked.

What I am interested in is the “hinternet,” something more than the internet: a phenomenon that utilizes our tools of connectivity while participating in what is actually happening in real time and real space. Certainly our drift in the Midwest made me think about time as much as space, because the projects becoming something substantively different from the four bad bargains take a long time to develop. In this sense the strategic is emphasized more than the tactical. The kind of cultural production I’m interested in is very much a kind of sequel to the Debord quote Konrad opened with: a de-professionalization of artists, freeing them to do things not dictated by markets, cyber-time, vehicular space and semio-capitalism. The rest keeps us in the bad bargain, the Sloanism of producing novelty for short attention spans. We have to create our own institutions of culture and our own structures of time in which different kinds of social and material relations have a chance.