e-flux journal issue 103

e-flux journal issue 103

e-flux journal

Photo: Jazreel Chan/CC BY 2.0.

October 9, 2019
e-flux journal issue 103

with Metahaven, Sven Lütticken, Elvia Wilk, iLiana Fokianaki, Aaron Schuster, Claire Tancons, Peter Friedl, Jörg Heiser, and Cuauhtémoc Medina

There is a certain plasticity of meaning inherent in any use of language. If that weren’t the case, poetry and literature would not exist. There would only be contracts, scientific formulas, shopping lists, and so forth. Journalism would be properly factual—there would be no fake news or disinformation. All utterances would document isolated events, never evoking larger patterns or tapping into hidden desires. But then the question arises: Even if language could be cleansed of all ambiguity and spin, what role would images play?

If language is the problem, images can only be worse. Against a backdrop where postmodern slippages in language and image have been so efficiently weaponized by right-wing populists, it would be a huge mistake to imagine a good old time when language was honest and images just showed what was there. Not only because this time never existed—and would be a lucrative right-wing fantasy to concoct on its own—but because all of the creative power of language and image lies precisely in this fold. Even by 1919, Dada was in full swing. Now, just as then, the perversion of autocratic power triggers a kind of absurdist, perverse artistic response.

In the 103rd issue of e-flux journal, the artist collective Metahaven excavates the power and danger, and sometimes failure, of metaphor, metonymy, and allegory, among other linguistic devices. Their essay “Sleep Walks the Street, Part 1” considers Victor Klemperer’s tracing of the rapid proliferation of Nazi language in everyday German life, side by side with contemporary terminology from the Dutch far right, such as the word klimaatminaretten (“climate minarets”), which collapses at least two layers of denial and xenophobia/Islamophobia into a few syllables. In the next installment of this essay, Metahaven will look into a certain tradition of “absurdist” Russian poetry.

One hundred years after the founding of the Communist International, facing a growing, transnational neofascist movement, Sven Lütticken calls not for absurdism but for the building of a new, anti-capitalist and anti-fascist International—or, rather, a “Terrestrial.” This coalition of survivances, urges Lütticken, could eventually become a real source of political strength and action. Lütticken asks whether our current organizational structures could nurture an infant Terrestrial—very much among them the art world, where international finance capital roams free. Lütticken writes that a movement such as a Terrestrial must confront and work with the “all-too-human mutants and monsters of actually existing capitalism.” This proposition of a Terrestrial is not dadaist, nor absurdist, and Lütticken positions this line of thinking directly against Situationism. It works to unravel how power is constituted and invoked.

Also in this October issue, Elvia Wilk sinks into the world of vampire “larping”—as well as other kinds of “live-action role-playing”—with consideration for the kind of detailed discussions of consent and recognition that allow for this kind of serious play. Larping is perhaps able to suggest the possibility of some new forms of temporary autonomy, but nevertheless accountable and consensual ones that use fictions to address our world.

Meanwhile, iLiana Fokianaki delves into the increasingly alarming contemporary condition of narcissistic authoritarian statism. She begins her study with a parable from Julio Cortázar’s 1951 story “Casa Tomada,” in which a group of siblings inherits a mansion. Plagued by growing paranoia that “others” are inhabiting the house’s many rooms, they close off and relinquish room after room to “them,” finally abandoning the whole inheritance. Fokianaki relates this to the political situation of today, and examines several artists whose work offers real retorts to this statist condition.

Aaron Schuster turns his focus towards Ernst Lubitch’s 1939 romantic comedy Ninotchka, relaying how the film had a profound effect on, for example, the 1948 Italian elections. Schuster zooms in on Greta Garbo’s laugh and Lubitch’s use of certain kinds of humor, showing the ideological complexities contained in its comedy and meta-comedy, its historically symbolic imagery, and its light-handed decomposition of Soviet communism. Despite the fact that the film was turned into anti-communist propaganda, Schuster writes that “many of the film’s best jokes are directed against capitalists and aristocrats.”

Curator Claire Tancons and artist Peter Friedl hold a conversation about theater, neutralizing curators, postcolonialism, and contemporary art as a prison in laying out a “Portrait of the Artist as a Dramatist.” The two discuss Friedl’s marionette works, starring, among others, Antonio Gramsci’s wife, Julia Schucht. Friedl probes the concept of “resistance”—central to some currents of political discourse, and as Friedl maintains, long held as a property of contemporary art. But, he says, because of this, it’s strange that contemporary art picks up the capitalist optimization of a certain kind of performance.

Jörg Heiser examines Adrian Piper’s 2018 book Escape to Berlin: A Travel Memoir. Heiser details how, as shown in the memoir, Piper’s decades-long battle with Wellesley College and self-imposed exile exemplifies the hostility of America’s most “progressive” institutions to African-American artists and intellectuals. Heiser describes being drawn to Piper’s work by the deadpan humor in several of her performances. This quality survives in Piper’s work despite the growing difficulties she has faced, leading up to her decision to leave the US for good. Heiser points out that, at Wellesley, Piper became an American whistleblower for workplace abuses of power, and was punished for playing that role—a tradition that continues into the present.

And Cuauhtémoc Medina writes that Francisco Toledo, an artist whose work contained something of the absurd, and who died last month, fervently hated tributes. Toledo’s work, spanning several decades, also spanned painting, sculpture, textile, surrealism, animism, eroticism, and so on. Medina writes that in recent years, with violent deaths rising in number across Mexico, Toledo created kites and clay funerary urns depicting the departed. In addition to his physical work, Toledo founded and maintained a series of cultural institutions—schools, libraries, museums—that transformed the city and state of Oaxaca. Medina maintains that as much as Toledo would have resisted memorialization, Mexicans have the right to mourn the late artist, who brought so much tangible good to a nation in desperate need of it.



Metahaven—Sleep Walks the Street, Part 1 
One of the things that “absurdism” did was to undermine the expediency of all language that was meant to be believed simply because it was uttered. This is still unwelcome politically, whether it is the “realism” of official Soviet aesthetics, the “promise” underlying a financial product, or the “organic truth” of Nazi ideologists like Alfred Rosenberg, or indeed whether it is the memes, metaphors, and allegories of the far and populist right that freely borrow from their ideological predecessors: all of these doctrines and “interfacial regimes” rely on believing their own performative phraseology. This is true whether such regimes are messy or systematic, whether centrally imposed or adopted as part of news cycles, troll and bot attacks, hashtags, likes, and retweets. Klemperer writes that the Third Reich, with its permanent accumulation of “historic” events and “momentous” ceremonies, was “mortally ill from a lack of the everyday.”

Sven Lütticken—Toward a Terrestrial 
More recently, a neoliberal ideologization of the self-sufficient, entrepreneurial self or “sovereign individual” has fed into an online and offline culture of entitled (male, white) trolls and thugs—the yuppie as the larva of the fascist. When a sense of eroding privileges is essentialized, a life reduced to survival can quickly be translated into phantasms such as “white genocide.” However, (seemingly) progressive forces are clearly not immune from the social pathologies of the age. The need for coalitions is constantly frustrated by jockeying for position through the construction of hierarchies of grief. In a volatile cultural economy, the accumulation of cultural capital often seems to prevail over the need to build infrastructures of coexistence.

Elvia Wilk—Ask Before You Bite
Mutual love is often thought of as mutual recognition: I see you for who you are and you see me back. But recognition is inevitably also a naming, a fixing, a pinning down. In order to recognize, you have to categorize, and categories are notoriously inflexible. Recognition, if understood as a projection that disallows the evolution of self and identity, becomes restrictive rather than liberating. However inadvertently, the recognition required for mutual love can easily slip into a form of control.

iLiana Fokianaki—Narcissistic Authoritarian Statism, Part 1: The Eso and Exo Axis of Contemporary Forms of Power
In culture, and particularly the contemporary visual arts, we should not underestimate the extent to which cultural workers themselves mimic the tropes of narcissistic authoritarian statism. We do not need to look further than Ai Wei Wei’s 2016 recreation of a photograph depicting the death of Aylan Kurdi, a child refugee whose body washed up on the shores of Turkey. Wei Wei cast himself in the role of the drowned child, as if the only way to raise awareness was to re-enact the drowned refugee child, publicizing his image as equally strong as the actual event. Or consider Swiss artist Christoph Büchel’s work Barca Nostra (2019), presented at the 2019 Venice Biennale: he docked a vessel in which more than 700 people died on the night of April 18, 2015 on a pier in Venice’s Arsenale, next to a snack bar. In both cases, the narcissism of the artist employs neoliberal logics: their cultural capital is important enough to justify breaking codes of respect toward the dead.

Aaron Schuster—Communist Ninotchka 
And to extend our analysis one step further: not only does Ninotchka provide a comic dissection of Soviet communism, it also contains a utopian horizon. This relates to the film’s double transformation, or double conversion, of the West to Marxism, and of communism to laughter, superfluity, and excess. Is not the real romance of film the romance between communism and surplus enjoyment? This screwball communism is what the (smiling) “Leninist” couple of Leon (the decadent Western reader of Marx) and Ninotchka (the laughing revolutionary militant) represents. “Luxury communism” is a facile phrase, but the more interesting question might be stated as follows: What would it mean to organize a society where surplus enjoyment would neither be ascetically denied nor captured by, and exploited for the production of, capitalist surplus value?

Claire Tancons—Portrait of the Artist as a Dramatist: A Conversation with Peter Friedl
Art has become completely self-indulgent, totally in love with and surrendering to images and information. I think the problem of art today is that it hasn’t found very convincing answers to the dream life of the World Wide Web. Mimicry is not enough. I remember T. J. Clark preaching that. When it comes to my métier, the creation of complex images, I have the feeling that resistance must take strange paths and go far beyond any iconoclastic impulse. Saying “no” means to radiate negativity towards all sides, in order to save some positivity that isn’t just self-absorbing. I find it important to close certain windows now. For example, I don’t want to give away too much information about the alchemy of layering. This isn’t about self-censoring or mystifying, it’s about salvaging aesthetic substance that has become too fragile. My job is trying to become silent, for only silence cannot be censored.

Jörg Heiser—The Great Escape: Adrian Piper’s Memoir on Why She Went into Exile 
“Everything will be taken away,” depending on the context, takes on different meanings, but it is always with the same underpinning: loss is always occurring, but there is also a sense of relief at being able to let go of attachments. Piper’s memoir allows you to read very concrete meaning into this in regard to her professional affiliations in US academe and the US art world: being abandoned by all those depicted in the erased snapshots made it easier for her to leave behind the country from which she has taken exile.

Cuauhtémoc Medina—A Southerly Gale: Francisco Toledo, 1940–2019
For more than three decades Francisco Toledo was the reference point for a cultural practice that invents common space as a form of ethical expression. Mexico in particular, and the Global South in general, have lost a multifaceted artist, one of inexhaustible depths. In today’s Mexico, no one knows who will continue to protect the causes that Francisco defended. The danger that the beauty he created in his cultural institutions will be lost is a ghost that haunts our nightmares with an oppressive sense of dread.

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