New Museum Triennial, "The Ungovernables"

Arnaud Gerspacher

March 17, 2012
New Museum Triennial, New York
February 15–April 22, 2012

The Grand Inquisitor and Diogenes are crucial figures of the ungovernable—one as cynical exercise of power with impunity, the other as mocking embrace of bare life and irreverence towards authority. These two figures continue to represent the polarities we inhabit: the unofficially ungovernable states and institutions that wield great power (doing business in an official capacity) and officially ungovernable communities that are neglected, perish, or resist (in unofficial capacities). Jean-Luc Nancy’s understanding of this polarity is between the global death-drive of the "un-world" and the creative stirring of "world-making" that resists the cold closure of such an immonde. 1 Some of us have had the luxury of hiding in the middle—increasingly wary of being controlled by larger ungovernables (global capitalism, military states, religious fundamentalisms) yet equally wary of the sacrifices necessary to becoming more ungoverned ourselves. Who can afford to be Diogenes anymore, especially when so many parts of the world fill the role at little or no cost, without choice and little exposure?

It is depressingly clear that history has been far kinder to the grand inquisitors, whose qualifications continue to make for attractive hires at high-level positions. This time, however, if there is an inconvenient return, it is not safely tucked away in a hidden jail. It comes in the form of a diffuse desire for democracy and socio-economic re-calibration—and the news has already leaked. This is cause for cautious optimism. It is cause for reading Michel Foucault’s late lectures on fearless speech and Peter Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason, since the coercive effects of our long-internalized cynicism in the face of larger ungovernable powers might be changing. Sloterdijk described this cynical realism as "the universal widespread way in which enlightened people see to it that they are not taken for suckers." 2 Sitcoms in the nineties were based on this sentiment, political careers are fueled by it, and many a museum show has been curated to safer shores rather than troubling the board and its donors.

One of the admirable strengths of the New Museum’s second triennial "The Ungovernables" is its lack of concern for being taken as a sucker. It should be noted, before judging the merits of its conceptualization, that it is refreshingly serious in its ambitions. Even work betraying humor and joy feels purposive, and, crucially enough, the exhibition doesn’t feel naïve or self-congratulatory. It simply wants to mean something without self-reflexively buffering its own ambition.

In her curatorial introduction, Eungie Joo justifies the premise of ungovernability and cites its origins in South African Apartheid: "Used as both a derogative colonial term to justify violent repression of the ‘natives’ (‘These people are ungovernable!’) and an affirmative call for civil disobedience (‘We will make this country ungovernable!’), ungovernability is a double-edged sword that pursues a radical change in the everyday, but promises an upheaval that is not necessarily controllable." 3 This post-colonial re-appropriation and identification with a nationalistic term of repression is then matched onto art practices coming out of similar situations putting geo-political and economic limitations to good use. She cites one of her exhibited artists, Jonathas de Andrade, as claiming that the artist has a sort of "holographic existence." That is, based on artists’ constant movement and adaptability, they serve as diplomats of provocation and interference. Above all, Joo’s understanding of the ungovernable artist is one of resourcefulness, pragmatism, and hopefulness.

In a general sense, however, this concept of ungovernability is far more than merely double-edged. The relentless global dialectic of large-scale ungovernables and smaller-scale bodies and communities that suffer and resist is left implicit. There is also the problem of making ungovernability a universal, as if all times and places call for equal dosage or intensity. More problematic still, these forms of ungovernability and the artist’s "holographic existence" can equally describe terrorist strategies, something that amounts to an unthinkable occlusion of history. For this we should be careful and attentive, and not automatically assume that ungovernability makes an artist interesting or politically viable. Deleuze and Guattari—who hover around this show—understood this well when they described the war machine as itself in a smooth space outside the state. Like flows, the nomadic, the rhizome, or "processes of singularization," ungovernability turns out to be pharmacological—both poison and cure. These concepts provide channels for better and for worse, whereby capital, neo-colonialism, fundamentalism, destruction, creativity, artists, and ideas are all tuned in together.

With these qualifications in place, it is important to ask how the New Museum and its program of "ungovernability" is unable to govern the works themselves. Failure is built in and the great disparity of work, the fine mess of forms and concerns, and the insistently inoperative ability to totalize a set of communities can be seen as another strength of the exhibition. This is encapsulated by one of the first works that greets you, namely, de Andrade’s 4000 Disparos (4000 Shots) (2010). A filmic exercise in serial futility, de Andrade shot single-frame images of four thousand men in Buenos Aires, which equals the number of frames in a three-minute roll of film. This amounts to using the old critical limit of modernism, which is happily trumped by a perceptual frustration with the speed of the film and its archival inability to provide much more than a visual census.

Moments of joy and humor in the show are undoubtedly embodied by Hassan Khan’s infectious film installation Jewel (2010), which includes raucous music by the artist in the Shaabi genre—Cairo street music that mixes electronic production with traditional instruments. The short film begins with a nebulous sky turned oceanscape once a mean-looking deep-sea fish swims along to amorphous music. This anglerfish—deceivingly large on screen while in reality being quite small—lights its own way by making use of a single bioluminescent antenna protruding from its head. Out of the abyss comes a self-guided, self-propelled being, which might prefigure the myth of self-founding origins as parable for all others: religious, nationalistic, liberal, human. (In their own way, Minam Apang’s staggeringly beautiful drawings in the show also deal with the theme of myth). Suddenly it is petrified in its tracks, flaring up and consumed by its own luminosity like a constellation. The film then pans out from the abyss, the beat drops, and the fish-turned-constellation becomes nothing more than irradiated residue on a large speaker. There is a palpable sense of being sucked into an immanent room from previously transcendent depths, with two men now facing each other dancing for the duration of the film. The work was inspired by a similar scene witnessed by Khan "on the streets of Cairo as well as other interactions between men in which power structures replicate themselves in everyday forms." 4 Nevertheless, the channeling and expenditure of these power structures have been displaced through humor and irreverent, self-effacing gesticulations. The sentiment is mirrored in the collective Slavs and Tatars’ PrayWay (2010), a Persian carpet propped up like an open book and graced by an underside of blue neon lights flooding the floor. It is a peculiar combination of souped-up tradition (like a customized car) whereupon gallery goers are encouraged to stand, sit, and chill. Does the public stand in for scripture, or are they interpolated?

Of the two big ungovernables—religion and global capitalism—the thorny issue of theology and secularism falls on institutional silence. As it stands, the safer ungovernable target at these higher levels is the economic. This is largely evinced in what might be called "cynical corporate aesthetics," most notably in Pilvi Takala’s installation The Trainee (2008), which documents her time as a new employee at an accounting firm who never actually took part in any business activities. Her gesture is a situationist refusal to work, albeit one embedded within the very corporate structure Takala critiques. In an updated version of Bartleby, it is a passive instigation, and judging from audience reaction, to comical effect. These reactions, however, may very well betray uneasy sublimation: after all, is she not exposing a corporate environment that bears down on most of us here, even the curators themselves?

The Propeller Group’s TVC Communism also employs corporate aesthetics. Presented as a five-channel video installation in the round, the audience is privy to the prefab dryness of a marketing agency meeting in Ho Chi Minh City, in the actual offices of a firm that represents some of the highest level multi-national corporations (with absurd Forbes 500-style competitive words of encouragement adorning the walls as backdrop). The result of this meeting is then shown alongside the installation, which can be described as a pitch for a "new Communism" in meaningless ad-speak that reduces the thinking of collectivity to the kind of moralizing syrup associated with political ads or selling clothes through coercive political correctness. But while the work exposes the deadening media tropes that, at least in the United States, go a long way in informing the public (a majority of whom would be surprised to hear that the Communist idea has anything to do with solidarity and equality), it does not give a way out.

Another practice that "The Ungovernables" champions are "network interruptions," a socially engaged strategy in which artists interfere in pre-existing social, economic, or political structures. Examples include work by Public Monument, Invisible Borders, Pratchaya Phinthong, the collective CAMP, and especially José Antonio Vega Macotela, whose "Time-Exchanges" are poetic interventions of gift theory that elude the panoptic reach of prison systems (rather than money, the artist trades his time and freedom on behalf of inmates’ desires in exchange for materials or expertise from within penitentiary walls).

Many of these network interruptions necessitate humble means and materials, which is another aspect of much of the work on view. (There are only a few works that seem to be readymade spectacles for biennials, like Danh Vo’s full-scale copper reproductions of the Statue of Liberty sectioned in the museum, or Adrián Villar Rojas’s massive clay sculpture that looks like a crumbling set prop from some bygone sci-fi film). The pitfall of championing the threadbare practices of these ungovernable artists—Abigalle Deville’s use of trash, Julia Dault’s sculpture as index of her physical limitations, Mounira Al Solh’s drawings born from tedium, or Lee Kit’s array of mundane objects—is that they come off like so much global arte povera. Above all, the fetishization of un-monumental materials risks making them more important than the ideas they attempt to embody, the economical poetry they do or do not possess, or their ability to communicate anything besides form and material tension against white gallery walls.

In many ways, "The Ungovernables" is less about ungovernability than it is about compassion. But compassion should not be understood as identification with those who suffer. No one has put it better than Nancy: it is the disturbance of violent relatedness. 5 Many of these artists succeed in this disturbance, especially those involved in network interruptions; and in general, the exhibition as a whole succeeds in creating a greater disturbance. But as with recent movements of occupation, it is minds that need to be occupied, not only public squares, bank lobbies, auctions houses, or museums. At the risk of being taken for a sucker myself, art practice, activism, and its institutions will have to become more integrated with a wider public that rarely understands the didactic and ethical powers we all claim art possesses (and here the institutions are mostly to blame, both academic and curatorial). The "and" in "art and life" might finally be understood for what it needs to be: both bond and separation. And if the drive for compassion has any chance, manifest in both ungovernable uprisings and the cultural productions that offer their support, it is to become a larger ungovernable itself so as to hold its own among the others. This would entail not the end of art, but the end of museums as discrete entities and sanctuaries for the well dressed, or as entertainment complexes that even make room for political works critical of the very compassionless practices of their corporate sponsors. This would be an immanent sacrifice worth making.


Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Creation of the World, or, Globalization. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007.


Sloterdijk, Peter. Critique of Cynical Reason. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987, 5.


Eungie Joo, "The Ungovernables," 15.




Nancy, Jean-Luc. Being Singular Plural. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2000, xiii.

Capitalism, Economy
State & Government, Postcolonialism, Networks, Biennials

Arnaud Gerspacher is a PhD candidate in art history at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York, writing a dissertation on animals, posthumanism, and ecology in art.

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