e-flux journal issue 106—“Art After Culture”

e-flux journal issue 106—“Art After Culture”

e-flux journal

Unidentified postcard, c. 1905.

February 6, 2020
e-flux journal issue 106—“Art After Culture”

with Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-RahmeFranco “Bifo” BerardiMary Walling BlackburnKeller EasterlingIrmgard EmmelhainzLiam GillickBoris GroysCharles Tonderai MudedeNew Red Order, and Anton Vidokle

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a “global” art world began to form. Sure, there were already a number of world’s fairs and established international biennials, but this would be different. From the 1990s onward, national boundaries would dissolve, centers and peripheries would level out, and the internet would host worldwide cultural exchange. In many ways this really did happen, but some other things also happened. As people and ideas began to move across borders, money did too. Faced with an unmanageable planetary scale, capital became a more efficient regulator of flows than laws or nations. Suddenly, capital rose to become the primary form of representation and expression for the global community, and its flair for flexibility and recombination would even be mistaken as democratic, autonomous, and antiauthoritarian, sealing it in as a new form of sublime non-governance. Capital’s twin, the internet, would also democratize many scarce resources and forms of representation just as efficiently as it would mask its control by state agencies and some of the largest corporations in human history.

In art, the call to join with the global would be answered by a vast industry of events—pop-up museological exhibitions across the world—that would animate a thriving art market. Artworks would be produced and exhibited on a previously unimagined scale, and newspapers would distinguish works by their relation to capital (record-setting prices). Better-informed practitioners in the field of art who might once have used politics or history to engage with artworks found themselves faced with cultures they did not understand—at times for completely mundane or understandable reasons, at others due more to sublime arrogance. Suddenly, the passage to any political or historical understanding would be covered over by the abstraction of cultural exchange—a mode of communication that supposes that you don’t really understand where I am from or what I have been through. Forced to pander to a global community with unlimited resources but limited access to the forces and urgencies that animate my own work and thinking, I may even become foreign to myself. I may seek global approval to accept that my own politics, my own history, even exist. Without that recognition, I might need to enlarge the spectacle—add violence, sharper colors, car chases, happy endings, a whiff of fascism, or a full sectarian withdrawal from the superstate.

But the mandate to become cultural becomes far more complex than this when the globe tells us what we already know to be true: that with or without the recognition of a planet of others, we still do not understand what we ourselves have been through. An art aligned with modern and humanist traditions and ambitions appears unhelpful. The cultural peculiarities of European scientific, industrial, and political revolutions seem only to deepen the problem. Faced with looming planetary ecological meltdown, when institutions that were not qualified to blaze pathways for all of humankind to begin with come down from their galactic ambitions, they too land on culture—not as a project or technology, but as a naturalized way of including politics and histories they are unable or unwilling to understand. They, too, forfeit questions of scale to global flows of spectacle and capital.

In 2019 we wanted to celebrate ten years of e-flux journal by organizing a series of conferences reflecting upon some of the major themes and concerns the journal has explored. And while we often assume ideological meltdown and structural dysphoria to be a core condition of artistic production and thought today, the fact that all of these conferences were organized with so many generous friends, radiant thinkers, and fellow travelers can only be incredibly encouraging. Last January, we began with the conference “Exile,” focusing on themes of estrangement and entitlement, hosted by Witte de With in Rotterdam. In February, La Colonie in Paris hosted “The Twilight Symposium: Science Fiction Inside Colonialism,” on diasporic dreamworlds. In April, we partnered with the Harun Farocki Institut to present the symposium “Navigation Beyond Vision” at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. The conference asked how gamespace and virtual space are profoundly shifting not only the politics of the image, but also the spatial parameters for acting and existing.

In June at e-flux in New York, we concluded the four-month conference series with “Art After Culture,” which this issue focuses on. As the cumulative conference, it asked: If we remember the artistic avant-garde tradition and its iconoclastic contempt for culture, how can we reconcile our own unknown culture with apparently simultaneous traditionalist fetishes? If we are now chained to an apparatus of representation that can only be spectacular in its scale, what is the project that art must necessarily undertake against reactionary self-homogenizing withdrawals? Can, or should, art still gain access to something larger than the culture it was born into? Today, bloated modernist ambitions are often easily called out for being imperial and expansionist, even when they adopted idealistic and inclusive language. And the withdrawal from this tradition often takes the form of personal narratives and minoritarian longings to seal off toxic neighbors, and maybe eliminate them once and for all. Indeed, if we had been more modest in our ambitions from the beginning, we could have avoided a number of headaches.

At the same time, the blunt fact of planetary human entanglement has not changed that much, though its character seems to have completely reversed course: no longer the site of necessary transnational cooperation, this mutual entanglement now obliges us to understand our own toxicity, our own role in contributing to the ultimate spectacle of mass ecological self-extinction. But could it be possible to see this not only in terms of human death, but also as a cultural endpoint—the death and failure of innumerable technologies that fueled the lives, wars, and industries of human culture? And if art—ancient, modern, or whatever—was always able to project past these endpoints, then what is art after culture?



Anton Vidokle—Art and Sovereignty
In the landscape that is gradually emerging, it’s not so fantastical to imagine the eventual replacement of all international exhibitions with beer festivals, local food and craft fairs, or other types of events that reaffirm a particular identity and sense of belonging, rather than offering an encounter with something or someone outside of that tightly constructed place. It’s also becoming possible to imagine a reduction or even a termination of human movement: from the reemergence and fortification of numerous national borders, to increasing visa restrictions and the exclusion of entire religions or nationalities from entering certain countries, to perhaps requiring a permit to leave. I grew up in the Soviet Union and I do remember living in a regime under which you can’t leave the country without permission from the state.

Boris Groys—The Museum as a Cradle of Revolution
In one of his treatises, Malevich writes about the difference between artists and physicians or engineers. If somebody becomes ill, they call a physician to regain their health. And if a machine is broken, an engineer is called to make it function again. But when it comes to artists, they are not interested in improvement and healing: the artist is interested in the image of illness and dysfunction. This does not mean that healing and repair are futile or should not be practiced. It only means that art has a different goal than social engineering.

New Red Order—Never Settle: Conscripted
As a settler-colonist, it’s important to consume—to develop … consummate taste … a taste for the other, for the unknown, for the new. It’s important to consume Art … Art, especially the kind conjuring nostalgic memories, can relax you, can lubricate your voyage back toward a primal confidence, to your intuition, to your privilege, to your influence, to be influenced.

Charles Tonderai Mudede—Which Angel of Death Appears in Afrofuturist Visions of Hi-Tech Black Societies?
With the assistance of a brilliant Wakandan engineer (let’s say T’Challa’s sister Shuri), one entrepreneur develops a process that can manufacture two spears in one hour. This advancement will shake up the whole spear industry because this entrepreneur can do in one hour what the others do in two. This advantage and its market consequences has a name. It’s called relative surplus value. What happens next? The factory that makes two spears in one hour moves forward in time; that is where the extra value is. It moves toward a society that has yet to exist. This society does not have as yet its culturally necessary labor time set to two spears in one hour. This factory is then, for a moment, the future of its culture. But eventually, the other spear entrepreneurs figure out how to make two spears in one hour, and so two spears in one hour becomes the new culturally necessary labor time. Then one day, an entrepreneur applies some science to spear production. This new kind of spear can fire beams of concentrated energy. All the warriors want this spear. The market is shaken up again. For a time, the entrepreneur enjoys relative surplus value, but from the consumer end of the market.

Keller Easterling—Medium Design
Art after culture. Just to say the simplest and most obvious thing: culture, in the broadest sense of the word, is good at pointing to things and naming them, but not so good at describing relationships between things. It privileges declarations, right answers, universals, and elementary particles. It is captivated by circular logics and modernist scripts that celebrate freedom and transcendent newness—narrative arcs that bend toward a utopian or dystopian ultimate.

Franco “Bifo” Berardi—Desire, Pleasure, Senility, and Evolution
Forty years ago, I remember shouting, “No future! No future!” with some young British musicians. I thought it was the provocation of an unlikely avant-garde. Now, everybody thinks that the future is over; now, the sentiment aligns with a conformist position held by most of humankind. “No future” has become common sense, and this is why cynicism is expanding in contemporary culture, in contemporary political behavior. Futurism was the expression of a society that expected something from the future, and of a society that truly felt the warmth of community, whether encapsulated in the nation, the family, or social ties to working communities. All the above was the reality of lived experience a hundred years ago. No more! Today, the nation is a nonexistent thing. The dissolution of the nation is an effect of the pervasive digitalization of information and of power based on information. Do you think that Google belongs to the United States? Not at all. The United States belongs to the territory of Google. So does Italy, and France, and so on.

Irmgard Emmelhainz—Can We Share a World Beyond Representation?
Along with being an index of democracy, art is also a lucrative niche for the global entertainment business. Art has thus become a form of consumable merchandise, destined to be used up. In this situation (diagnosed by Arendt and others in the 1960s), artists have either embraced this quality of art as merchandise (Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst), or rejected it in the name of politicization and criticality (Hans Haacke, Andrea Fraser, Hito Steyerl). With globalization, critical artists have been summoned to become useful by surrendering art’s (always partial) autonomy and taking up the task of restoring what has been broken by the system. So they denounce globalization’s collateral damage and contemporary art’s woeful conditions of production. They imagine a more just future, produce political imaginaries, disseminate counter-information, restore social links, gather and archive documents and traces for the “duty of memory,” etc. Perhaps, then, the prior role of the artist as a cultural vanguard has given way to a mandate to cultivate a feeling of political responsibility in spectators, in the name of self-representation and the representation of Enlightenment values.

Liam Gillick—Imagine a Country That Hated Art
Artists are a symptom of the high regard that is placed on absolute trash these days. It’s the people who encourage and sanction the exhibiting of this garbage that we blame. We wouldn’t let them whitewash the outhouse. This and similar art represents all that is bad and is nothing more than The Emperors New Clothes. Historians say art reflects the culture of its people. This so called ‘art’ to our mind is totally despairing to any advancement and enlightenment of the human race. If this is a reflection of our present day culture, we really are in trouble. We spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to ‘understand’ art. It was quite a miserable experience, because we felt really thick and stupid; because we couldn’t for the life of us see what was good about any of it. Then one day it just struck us that absolutely all modern art is simply worthless. Personally we wouldn’t walk to the end of the street to look at this trash.

Mary Walling Blackburn—From The Gnome’s Genome to Trash DNA: Technologies of Ancestor Phantasy for a Final Generation
Our most ancient animal ancestor, Dickinsonia costata, is categorically lodged between pestilence and creature. Or rather, Dickinsonia dithers in a space betwixt bacteria and animalia. Let us accept that our beginnings find us plunked down in the center of the margin. She, a flat mat, possesses an expanding physical symmetry. Some bugs are fugitive like this; see how they slide under your domestic things. Yet her remains are found as fossils on remote Russian cliffs. Her gravesite overlooks a marginal sea, a part of the warming Arctic Ocean—a site of intense oil and gas speculation. The slightest psychedelic tendency urges me to bypass my oral and historic memory and uncover an otherworldly and cellular memory of Dickinsonia costata: “Mama!?” I lisp.

Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme—At Those Terrifying Frontiers Where the Existence and Disappearance of People Fade into Each Other
Fragments from Edwards Said’s most personal and poetic work, After the Last Sky, are repurposed to create a new script that reflects on what it means now to be constructed as an “illegal” person, body, or entity. The script is turned into a song that is sung by the artists as multiple avatars. Created via a software program that generates avatars from a single image, the avatars in the video all come from images of people who participated in the “Great March of Return” that continues to take place regularly on the seamline in Gaza, an area that has been under physical siege since 2006. The relationship between fugitivity, fragility, and futurity becomes manifest in this field. The project uses low-resolution images that were circulated online; the avatar software renders the missing data and information in the original images as scars, glitches, and incomplete features on the characters’ faces.

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February 6, 2020

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