Photo: Jazreel Chan/CC BY 2.0.

Issue #103
With: Metahaven, Sven Lütticken, Elvia Wilk, iLiana Fokianaki, Aaron Schuster, Claire Tancons, Jörg Heiser, 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?

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9 Essays October 2019

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 utteredThis 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.”

Toward a Terrestrial
Sven Lütticken

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.

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.

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 need look no further than Ai Weiwei’s 2016 recreation of a photograph depicting the death of Aylan Kurdi, a child refugee whose body washed up on the shores of Turkey. Weiwei cast himself in the role of the drowned child, as if the only way to raise awareness was to reenact 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 seven hundred 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.

Communist Ninotchka
Aaron Schuster

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?

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.

“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.

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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