Chapter 6: Introduction - Assuming the Position: Art and/Against Business

Proud to be Flesh Cover

Introduction to Chapter 6 of Proud to be Flesh - Assuming the Position: Art and/Against Business

 

I want to burn down all your factories!

Gustav Metzger

 

The last thing we should be doing is embracing our miserable marginality.

Bifo

The title of this chapter hopefully conveys a sense of the dangers involved in mirroring the corporate ‘other’ by self-understood radicals. As the slogan on a badge produced by the artists’ collective, Inventory, has it: ‘Ironic mimesis is not critique, it is the mentality of a slave!’ This formula’s vitriol no doubt derives from over-exposure to at least a decade’s worth of ‘adbusting’ and ‘culture jamming’. Such strategies, argues Neil Mulholland in his article on the cultural logic of Ambient, amount to little more than an attempt at ethical capitalism. But, if adbusting is now widely understood to be a kind of ‘anti-corporate corporatism’, are all mimetic strategies deployed by the postmodern and post-web generation to be so summarily dismissed? Mute’s coverage of ‘political net.art’ and electronic civil disobedience, especially during the latter half of the ’90s, reveals a thinking around the mimicry of capitalism’s modalities that goes beyond mere liberal reformism or radical chic. This chapter deals with the self-mirroring transformations of business and culture within digitally networked globalisation, and compiles the arguments for and against imitating the veneer, if not logic, of corporate activity within networked capitalism.

The interview with Artist Placement Group co-founders, Barbara Steveni and John Latham, by myself and Pauline van Mourik Broekman, uncovers some of the early moves in the courtship between art and business in the mid-1960s. In step with a contemporary desire to spin the modes and materials of industrial capitalism in new directions, this UK-based group of conceptual artists, negotiated industrial placements for artists. This project, the aim of which was to throw a creative catalyst into the heart of commercial production, created some very divergent results. Gustav Metzger drove a captain of industry out of the APG-convened Industrial Negative conference by declaring, ‘I want to burn down all your factories!’ Meanwhile, in the 2002 interview, Steveni reveals her more conciliatory position by describing companies as ‘conglomerates of individuals’ open to influence. Capitalism, this suggests, could be reformed by converting key players at the top of the tree, not by violent proletarian struggle from beneath. While some of its members engaged in class-based politics, APG could certainly be accused of pre-empting today’s neoliberal ‘culture industry’ and alliance culture.

Neil Mulholland’s above-mentioned critique traces the trajectory of culture’s assimilation into commerce to its suffocating terminus. Amongst a wide array of things ambient, he discusses the work of Glasgow-based artists David Shrigley, Ross Sinclair and Jonathan Monk. These artists, working in the cash strapped, post-recession ’90s, used nonchalant, witty and minimal strategies for ‘interrupting the equilibrium and continuity of temporal space’. These low-budget means of ‘re-narrating’ the city were ‘gradually disassociated’ from art and academia to become, by the end of the decade, the tools of viral advertising and ‘ambicommerce’.

Reviewing the ICA’s CRASH! Corporatism and Complicity show of 1999, however, Benedict Seymour questions the implied obligation for art to perform a critical function. While the show’s curators and many of its artists struggled to thwart the paradigm of ironic mimesis, or complexify it beyond the point of simple co-optability, Seymour suggests that less self-flagellation and more ‘being in uncertainty’, even luxuriant escapism, may be what’s required.

While Seymour speculates that the solution to the riddle of contemporary cultural politics is, perhaps, a rejection of art’s ethical responsibility, interviews with Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) and Electronic Disturbance Theatre’s (EDT) Ricardo Dominguez strike a very different note. Rejecting the efficacy of representative democracy and, in CAE’s case, the attendant forms of street-based protest bar highly localised ones, they advocate a proliferation of anarchist-style cells working across the internet to thwart the smooth functioning of power. This electronic civil disobedience should be as nomadic and distributed as its state-corporate target. Rather than accepting the ‘voyeuristic’ and ‘narcissistic’ relationship to virtual space prescribed by the military-industrial complex, EDT advocate that participants in net culture assume an ethical stance vis-à-vis a ‘distant other’. Both groups have pursued a ‘marriage of convenience’ between activists and hackers to disrupt techno-capitalism and hit it where it hurts – its databases.

In their ‘Culture Clubs’ article, Anthony Davies and Simon Ford formulate a similar response to the flattened networks and hollowed-out companies that characterised the commercial landscape of the ’90s, and continue to do so. As outsourcing and flexibilisation become the order of the day for business, cultural organisations followed suit, and these hollowed out institutions, part-funded through corporate sponsorship (rather than patronage), were increasingly made available to commercial agendas. As faith in the culture industry peaked with New Labour and the newly desirable arts were understood as the ‘secret weapon of business’, any residual idea of art’s autonomy beyond the sphere of commerce perished.

But if, in response, adopting the virtual and nomadic forms of capital seemed to be justified by the successes of the anti-globalisation movement of the late-’90s and early-’00s, its cultural variant was arguably less successful. In his text, ‘Learning the Right Lessons’, which revisits the politics of ‘tactical media’ ten years on, David Garcia quotes Bifo’s denunciation of the Telestreets movement at a 2004 meeting in Senigallia. While representatives from the micro-broadcasting movement met in an obscure Italian seaside town, Berlusconi’s government passed the Gasparri law, consolidating his grip on the Italian mediascape. Bifo and others berated the Telestreets producers for embracing their ‘miserable marginality’ and consequently missing the opportunity to attack the legislation head-on. The diffusion of efforts and effects, amidst loosely allied producers, despite being a celebrated tactic for subverting networked capitalism, risks evaporating altogether. As with the alliance culture of the business sector, such loose ties of commitment and intention can produce as much instability as contingent support. The mimesis of capital’s modus operandi by radical groups and artists, though not necessarily displaying the mentality of the slave, is liable to the same turbulence and collapse that its markets are currently experiencing. In the multimedia age, if a return to the politics of what Baudrillard called ‘the system of meaning and representation’ is no longer an option, what forms of collaboration will develop within, and against, capitalism’s nomadic networks? And, whatever happened to the strategy of burning down its factories?

Anthology: 
Proud to be Flesh

Do As They Do, Not As They Do

All work and all play make Toywar soldiers' day! Josephine Berry on etoy and eToys' legal tussle in the symbolic economy.

Last November 29th, US online toy retailer eToys brought a suit against the European net art collective etoy, blocking them from using their own domain name www.etoy.com — registered two years before eToys even existed — in a clear cut case of corporate might and spite, not to mention greed. The closeness of ‘etoy.com’ to the retailer’s own URL www.etoys.com, argued every kiddy’s favourite corporation, was confusing customers who also risked being exposed to pornographic and violent (a.k.a. European and arty) content. eToys played heavily on the family values card to secure a preliminary US court ruling in their favour. Not surprisingly, this action elicited torrents of vitriol from etoy fans and the Reclaim the Domain Name System lobby alike. Quite a lot more surprising, however, given the hotness of the DNS topic right now, was the professionalism and commitment accomplished by Toywar — etoy’s name for its resistance campaign and website www.toywar.com — whose antics finally secured eToys’s total climb down as they watched their shares plunge by 70rom $67 to $20 a share. In what has been described as "the Brent-Spar of e-commerce", eToys dropped the case ‘without prejudice’ on January 25th (i.e. withholding the option to resume proceedings again) and agreed to pay etoy’s court costs of $40,000. There is no doubt that this has been a landmark victory in the crucial battle over Domain Names and an inspiringly unorthodox example of ‘dispute resolution’.

But hold on, did I say ‘professionalism’ and ‘commitment’ just now? Wouldn’t those words look more at home in a go-gettin’ corporate presentation? Precisely the trick. etoy was itself, as Douglas Rushkoff recently put it, intended "both as a satire of the corporate value system and a barometer of the information space." If power is corporate and global, argue etoy, then art should be too. The etoy campaign is replete with both metaphors and strategies lifted straight out of the corporate world. Potential recruits are incited to "HELP US PROTECT THE etoy.BRAND AND BECOME A SHAREHOLDER!". Partisan efforts are rewarded with loyalty points corresponding to ‘etoy.SHARES’ in the ‘etoy.ART-BRAND’. In a press release their spokesman, Zai, informs us that "investors keep etoy alive. They invest into the future of Internet art." Indeed, US based activist art group RTMark’s decision to award etoy ‘sabotage project funding’ could effectively be seen in terms of a joint venture. Not only are individual art groups adopting the walk and talk of the corporate world, but they’re even corporatising amongst themselves; sharing resources and databases, and piggybacking on each another’s brand value.

Could it be that etoy’s use of shares and markets effectively extends the modernist game of turning the conditions of the artwork’s making into the subject of the artwork itself (e.g. turning the canvas into the subject of the work) to the immaterial realm of financial markets? In other words, is the market really becoming more than just the subject of the art? Is it becoming subject and support (of the signifier) in one? Is an etoy.SHARE an actual share and its metaphor at the same time? Before ‘speculating’ on this any further, it should be mentioned that the role played by the Toywar in the free-fall of eToy’s shares is greatly contested. The FT’s view is reassuringly prosaic, blaming eToy’s humpty-dumpty antics on "the cost of tripling its customer base over the christmas holidays" amongst other things.

Etoy’s own line on the status of their share system masquerades behind an equally neutralising and predictable language: that of art history. Commenting on the possible illegality (within the US legal system) of issuing ‘etoy.SHARES’, they neatly side-step the whole modernist trajectory mentioned above. Insisting on the docility of the signified, they claim: "we never sold a share to a person who did not know that this is an ‘ART INVESTMENT’ ... according to international lawyers and advisors the word ‘share’ is not limited or registered for the use in financial markets! If artists can call art products ‘landscape XY’, ‘naked body blabla’ or ‘the death’ …we insist on the right to call our work etoy.SHARE... because value systems, stock markets and the surreal etoy.CORPORATION are our TOPICS!" So if an ETOY.share is not literally a share but can nonetheless be bought, acquired and exchanged, what is it? If etoy is not really a corporation but is nonetheless, at their own insistence, involved in effecting fluctuations in the market value of another company, their ‘rival brand’ so to speak, what is the art work’s relationship to its signified?

Surely what art risks when pastiche tips over into market manipulations and legal victories is the loss of the very thing that distinguishes it from its satirical victim: its own autonomy. Perhaps this sounds like an apology for a discredited ideal of disinterested art or ineffectual art, but it’s hard not to feel that etoy’s albeit ludic and PC deployment of markets isn’t achieving a too perfect symmetry with its dark other.

Josephine Berry <josieATmetamute.com>

Anthology: 
Proud to be Flesh

Everything Must Go

If the CRASH! Corporatism & Complicity exhibition at the ICA didn’t live up to its Situationist swagger, was it more than just an exercise in recycling avant-garde strategies? Benedict Seymour asks what modes of resistance are left to artists in an era of ‘creative capitalism’, ‘Prada Meinhof’ and art for business’ sake.

"Ironic mimesis is not critique, it is the mentality of a slave!" It may be hard to fit on a badge, but this was one of the more resonant slogans plastered across the walls of London’s ICA in the dying months of the 20th century. Amid the slew of agit prop stickers and corporate Newspeak that formed the CRASH! show’s background hum of unrest, this testy aphorism hung in the air, needling at you and its surroundings. The phrase seemed to refer outwards to the banal self-reflexivity of the media, cultural recycling, the ‘anarchic’ mummery of licensed fools like Chris Evans or Jim Carey of which the show’s curators have written so harshly. But it also turned back on its immediate environment, drawing attention to the artists’ own varied but almost universal reliance on modes of subversive appropriation.

The ICA obviously didn’t feel as absolute about the psychic servitude involved in this strategy, declaring in the pre-show blurb: "The artists in CRASH! mimic a range of activities and services, from trading, marketing, spin doctoring, genetic engineering, and advertising to spying and hairdressing." Is there a margin for critical reflection in such techniques or do the institutions and discourses imitated overwhelm the art? What modes should an effective critical art deploy? And is ‘critique’ a proper vocation for art anyway? These were questions raised (but not necessarily resolved) by the show — and this precisely because of the curators’ unusually vocal commitment to a kind of engaged, socially conscious art not much witnessed in the ‘Cool Britannia’ ’90s.

Matt Worley and Scott King, already known for their self-published magazine, billboard subversions and style mag rants, co-ordinated this art gallery extension of their dissident media project in collaboration with the ICA’s Emma Dexter and Vivian Gaskin. Having made clear their impatience with the false liberations of postindustrial capitalism — from ‘flexible’ working to corporatised leisure — they now had a proper gallery with a selection of artists, activists and theorists of their choosing with whom to explore the themes of ‘Corporatism & Complicity’ referenced in the exhibition’s subtitle. Proclaiming that CRASH! would be "both a reflection and a condemnation" of contemporary life, this was an unusually ambitious, confrontational approach which would take some living up to.

The curators stressed their intention to break with the self-indulgence and harebrained trivia of recent British art, and emphasised a commitment to ideas, politics, and a less fetishistic conception of the artwork. Instead of decorative self-absorption and an obsession with ‘identity’, this would be non-commodified, performative and even artless art with a design upon its viewers’ minds as much as their senses / wallets. The artists were looking at some subjects already familiar from the work of their populist yBA forbears, "real and even banal everyday concerns" being a hot ticket in the arte povera 90s, but their ambitions were larger, encompassing the topics of work and money, consumerism and dissent, globalisation and investment, democracy and the market and the interpenetration of all of these.

In the Corporatism-and-complicity equation the latter could have been a reference to the general state of culture vis-a-vis the market, or specifically that of art, but for sure it was also a self-dramatising acknowledgement of the show’s own conditions of possibility. Colliding the neutral space of the office (Rachel Baker installed a temp agency for artists complete with desk and waiting room, Szuper Gallery engaged in online day trading near the entrance to the show) with the makeshift architecture of contemporary protest (Inventory erected a wigwam full of polemic and information — a centre of operations, not a piece of art ), the show as a whole was more ambivalent than the CRASH! boys’ rhetoric let on. If it lacked the wild energy of their punk rock heroes, preferring constructive dialogue and dissident focus grouping to riotous assembly (Kate Glazer hosted an ongoing discussion forum in the gallery and online called ‘Thinktank/ Mindpool’), the show did share punk’s proto-Thatcherite brazeness about feeding from the hand it was biting. It seemed both unnerving and appropriate that sponsorship should come from the 90s masters of ‘ironic’ retro advertising, Diesel.

Of course, corporate patronage is not exactly unusual, but Matt Worley’s noisy dissatisfaction with the ‘Prada Meinhof’ and the choice of this particular sponsor seemed to point up the ironies of art’s compromised position. Who better, cynics might ask, to fund a simulacral recycling of 70s political and conceptualist gestures than the arch recyclers of 70s kitsch? The CRASH! catalogue is punctuated with updated Situationist squibs and, sometimes, clumsy soixante-huiticisms ("Never work, Never Sleep", "Burn It Down", "London’s Burning With Boredom Now"), just as Diesel clothing’s influential ad campaigns deployed what you might call an ‘ironic mimesis’ of the mendacious high consumerist rhetoric the Situationists more maliciously détourned ("Diesel: for Successful Living"). Diesel were surely aware of the kind of non-conformism they were trying to align themselves with, since their pitch relies on their target group’s self perception as ‘different’, sophisticated and un-duped. As Worley himself has written, vampiric capitalism recently moved on from recycled kitsch to the exhumation and (unselfconsciously) ironic mimesis of the signs of its erstwhile antithesis: from Che Guevara bars and terrorism on t-shirts, to the e-commerce ‘revolution’ and the rehabilitation of Marx — the sign of capitalism’s material triumph is also the index of its symbolic feebleness. The superficial or not-so-superficial similarity of sponsors, curators and artists in relying on modes of pastiche and varieties of subversion just emphasised how ambiguous the return to a critical art might be in the current climate, whatever the convictions of those involved.

Could CRASH! escape from the potential neutralisations and make a show that was more than a blank parody of political dissent? Perhaps, despite the curators commitments, the artists weren’t too worried. All shared a suspicion of art’s once vaunted claim to autonomy, and their often textual or performative ‘pieces’ tended to emphasise that art, business and other kinds of work exist in a continuum: Janice Kerbel gave us meticulously detailed plans for a bank job, as if taking the old conceptualist ideal of art as an (uncommodified) blueprint for a work to be executed by others to its logical, materialist conclusion; Matthieu Laurette’s ‘art’ was the ongoing project of his subsistence, living, since 1996, on money-back products — an example of scrimping rebelliousness whose margin of aesthetic ‘freedom’ must become as routine and time-consuming as any other job.

On the other hand, beyond the preliminary assumption of art’s implication in everything else, there seemed to be important differences in orientation. The forms of simulation deployed by the artists, ranging from a direct (re)enactment of corporate work-leisure in the temple of art (Szuper Gallery’s day trading activities, Rachel Baker’s temp agency putting artists in touch with potential employers) through John Beagles and Graham Ramsay’s didactic appropriation of the schoolroom wallchart to present viewers with a neglected history of metropolitan protest (Wat Tyler Wot Happened?), to Heath Bunting’s (spoof ?) DIY kit for producing GM resistant weeds (Natural Reality Superweed Kit 1.0), were as diverse in content and agenda as they were unified in strategy. Perhaps it was this dependence on second order mimesis — whether imitating corporate discourse or directly intervening in its processes — that heightened the show’s homogeneity. Even when the general tone of the artists was polemical and combative, as with the Inventory group, the politicised discourse was freighted with self-consciousness. Their list of demands, scribbled across the slats of a Venetian blind that hung in the centre of the tent, was sincerely belligerent but ruefully and comically self-cancelling: "We Demand that Sweden be flatpacked and shipped to Kosovo! / We demand that artists… oh, forget it." Acknowledging the incongruity of the gallery situation and the intransigence of their audience, even enemies of ironic mimesis could not sustain a rabble rousing discourse without, well, irony. As Novalis wrote, despair is the most terribly witty state of all.

Where Szuper Gallery seemed to indulge a fascination with the abstraction of high finance out of a desire to probe the latter for possible points of weakness, Carey Young’s video Everything You’ve Heard Is Wrong got even closer to its imitated object. The video showed a corporate-suited Young presenting an immaculate rendition of a business communication skills presentation at Speaker’s Corner. As the straggle of passers by and oration-lovers gathered and dispersed in the foreground, a fervent Moslem demagogue could be made out at the edge of the frame, creating an odd collision of sacred and secular modes in this anachronistic relic of the old public sphere. The passion and depth of the one would contrast wryly with the neutrality and selfreflexivity of the other. And yet, despite their ostensible disparity, in form and content, both perhaps aspired to a perfected communion, and neither mode could have been foreseen by the Victorian burghers who inaugurated this space. A presentation on public speaking at Speakers Corner? The world had swung from Chartism to flowcharts. The circularity of the performance made one think of the cancerously proliferating business book business, and the post-literacy of their authors. The recursive loop of addressing an audience with a lecture about how to hold an audience’s attention, and the lecture’s title, which xeroxed corporate language but also turned it against itself, gave off a cool absurdism.

It might be tempting to read the performance as a parodic reflection on the frictionless corporate ideal of ‘communication’, the reification of the richness of language by a base functionalism. Yet the deadpan mode, which was funny but not that funny, distinguished her schtick from straight satire. In addition, Young’s own reported enthusiasm for developing the synergies between creative businesses and the business-like creatives who work for them mitigates against such an interpretation. Perhaps this was the ‘ironic mimesis’ condemned in the slogan, a habit (or ‘slave mentality’) of empty mockery adopted in order to sustain the banalisation of everyday life? (This is surely the logic of the ‘subversive’ current affairs comedy show, not so much an assault on the status quo as a device for coping with, and hence reproducing, it.) But, on the other hand, who said art had to issue in ‘critique’? The ambiguity and complexity of connotation here seems to me more interested in a Keatsian ‘being in uncertainty’ than a rush to either polemic or comic relief. If some of the CRASH! artists had already identified the enemy and the field of combat in advance, Young’s approach retained a ludic openness that should not be summarily written off as co-opted. Young’s practice, reformist rather than revolutionary in tendency, may accept the parameters of the brave new corporate world but in its sensitivity to the implosion of previously distinct categories could be more useful than reheating old battle cries for gallery consumption. As Young has suggested, creativity and imagination, the intellectual and conceptual dexterity traditionally the preserve of the artist, have become fetishised values in the postindustrial workplace. Where the CRASH! curators recoil in horror from this reification of human potential, Young seems to play with the possibilities of ‘personal development’. Taking the logic of the yBAs’ entrepreneurialism a step further, on closer inspection the CRASH! show could have been heralding the next stage in arts subsumption under capitalism as much as calling for its revenge.

The ambiguities of Young’s work contrast usefully with those of another video-documented performance: We The People by Beagles and Ramsey. At first sight similar to Young’s work in its incongruous intervention in the public sphere, the video shows the artists attempting to make contact with secret service agents and presenting a provocatively vacuous petition to 10 Downing Street (It read simply "We The People", as if commencing a list of demands then immediately giving up). Apart from the deliberate futility of these activities, the fact that the actors/ artists had assumed the iconic appearance of Taxi Driver’s postmodern antihero, Travis Bickle, from the proto-punk mohican and manic De Niro grin down to the army boots, upped the ludicrousness quotient. Again, the performance’s futile non sequiturs seemed calculated to expose the hollowness of an institution, the alienation implicit in democratic representation, within a comic mode now hyper-familiar from postmodern British TV comedy (think of Adam & Joe, or the routinised assimilation of Chris Morris’s innovations in the 11 o’Clock Show). But the identification with the psychotic, vengeful figure of Bickle — the isolated, skewed crusader of a corrupt post-Vietnam polis — cut both ways, suggesting more meanings than the piece could organise. Lost in the labyrinth of implications, the sense of disenfranchisement and atomisation evoked by the original film returned as bathos. Here the work didn’t get beyond its mimesis of an already over-familiar if ambivalent signifier, leaving the world as dizzyingly cluttered with references and depleted signs of representation as it found it.

One could summarise the difference between the CRASH! show’s artists less on the level of technique or address (since imitation was common to almost all) than in whether or not they hoped to wring a final refusal of the global situation out of the deadlock their work evoked; in the case of Beagles and Ramsay, Heath Bunting or the Inventory group, pushing towards a more radical gesture to which their art and theorising was a partial contribution, or on the other hand, with Young, accepting the indeterminacy of the postmodern condition, the apparent absence of alternatives, and turning one’s attention to improving conditions within these limits as a kind of expanded, executive aestheticism. But did any of the work on show give a taste of these potentials, a breath of the new, improved life latent in ‘the banality of everyday life’? Between the latterday Situationists — who consider art already superseded by activism and regard such gallery interventions as merely one weapon in the cultural terrorist’s arsenal — and the business artists — following Warhol’s trajectory out of the autonomous sphere of art and into the office — there seemed little to choose. Neither offered a compelling aesthetic jolt of alterity or opened up a sense of escape. Ultimately the show’s very dependence on the genres of corporatised and commodified culture made the latter’s presence suffocating — the artists almost seemed to be hiding in the cloak of the adversary, afraid to strike out into anything so arrogantly deluded as a self-sufficient work.

Except for Mark Leckey, that is. The only piece in the show that was willing to sell out to the sensuous, whilst confidently registering seismic cultural shifts, was his video (not a document of an intervention this time but a deconstructed montage of documentary footage), Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore. Shut away behind black rubber curtains in a club-like darkness and projected across the length and depth of the room, it was a disorienting and heady shot of image after the dry texts that preceded it. Like guilty voyeurs, viewers could finally indulge their sick taste for sensory stimulation and narrative pleasure in this history of popular dance culture from northern soul to acid house. Faced with the conceptualist mirror of late capitalism who could blame you for taking the traditional route and getting out of it by getting out of your head?

This was not in fact an ‘escapist’ film, however. The form was chronological but discontinuous, the significance of the changes in gesture, dress, and musical style registered in the diverse source materials not explicated for the viewer but offered up for analysis. But it did feel like a release after the preceding dialectic of indifference. Perhaps art, which admittedly has been fetishised as a site of play, ambivalence and otherness, is nevertheless suffering not from too much luxuriant, escapist incertitude, but too little. There is a danger that, following the lead of a newly humble and self-flagellant capitalism (which, after all, has borrowed its new clothes from earlier artistic and political ‘creatives’), artists will feel obliged to downplay art’s residual freedoms, hairshirting themselves into the same reflex of repentance that gives us reality TV ("we don’t want to make the viewer’s feel they are less interesting or important than the stars — plus we’re strapped for cash"). Meanwhile, beyond the confines of the gallery, the artists and activists had been upstaged by events in Seattle, an eruption of organised political opposition to corporate domination which made it all look suddenly rather academic. Ironic or what?

Benedict Seymour <ben AT bseymour.freeserve.co.uk>

Anthology: 
Proud to be Flesh

Branded to the Bone

Chris Wilcha’s lo-budget documentary The Target Shoots First follows a post-punk rock-loving twenty-two year-old into the murky world of a large record company. Chris Darke compares his findings to those of Naomi Klein, author of No Logo, and to the criticism of the new American cultural order collected in the anthology Commodify Your Dissent. The question all three of these beg is: how far can one resist assimilation?

“The bourgeois scheme is that they wish to be disturbed from time to time, they like that, but then they envelop you, and that little bit is over, and they are ready for the next.” Claes Oldenburg, 1961

“It shouldn’t have been a shock, but it was.” Chris Wilcha, 1999

March to the Royal Festival Hall to hear a recital by the tabla virtuoso Zakir Husain. Projected above the stage was the logo of that evening’s sponsor, the financial services corporation HSBC. Nothing unusual about that; corporate sponsorship is so much a feature of high profile cultural events that the HSBC logo appeared as much in keeping with the evening as the musician’s arrangement of performance rug and flowers. But as an envoy from the Indian Embassy took the stage, name-checked the musicians, then introduced a representative of HSBC, a murmur ran through the audience which soon strengthened into a hiss of disapproval that hung over the auditorium. When Mr. HSBC began the customary spiel in which arts sponsorship is gently massaged away from being mistaken for a lucrative exercise in tax-loss philanthropy, the hissing became a sotto voce groan. By the time we were told about HSBC’s long relationship with the Indian subcontinent and about how many corporations have come to recognise that they have duties “beyond making a profit”, a slow handclap had started up, as if to express a collective sentiment of ‘Yeah, right’. Mr. HSBC then revealed he had a cheque to award to a worthy cause, which he proceeded to present to a representative of Unilever. A storm of hilarious derision broke over the unfortunate CEO, who retired from the podium having barely started his acceptance speech.

There was enough sheer ire in the air that night to suggest that, post-Seattle, even anti-corporate souls over here had tasted blood. In setting the stage for a performance of Indian devotional music with a soft-focus appeal to its colonial legacy, HSBC didn’t simply generate an unexpected PR-breakdown. Rather, it was a case of the public having a short fuse and little tolerance towards such juxtapositions. The audience at the Festival Hall expressed its hostility as outsiders given the uncommon privilege of shouting-down a mode of speech that has become a dominant form of public discourse. PR-spin is a language in which everything is addressed as product and everyone appealed to as a consumer and hostile rejection is a direct response to the saturation of the culture by this corporate vernacular. The vehemence with which this response was expressed requires that, in order to blunt it, the sharp men and women of corporate PR will have to wage a new, more concerted form of spin-warfare.

But what if an insider within the belly of promotional culture were to sustainedly train a camera on it, probe its etiquettes, crack open its contradictions and, with an almost naïve insistence, ask “What the hell am I doing here?” In May 1993, Christopher Wilcha, a 22 year-old philosophy graduate, went to work for Columbia House, the mail-order wing of Columbia Records, and took a Hi8 camera with him. Over the next two years, Wilcha gathered footage for a 70 minute tape, The Target Shoots First. Part video-diary, part counter-motivational training film, Target is that rare document – a sustained essay in corporate anthropology and a young Gen-Xer’s search for clarity in contradiction. It’s a work of well-balanced details, of analytical commentary elucidating anecdotal video-verité. Wilcha has a journalist’s sense of the facts that matter, so we learn early on that Columbia House is (was – there’s since been a merger) owned by Sony/Time Warner, that their combined revenue was $70 billion and that, as an employee, he’ll “have access to Sony and Time Warner’s cafeterias”. He also has the film-maker’s eye for the resonance in simple visual details: over shots of the empty and anonymous corporate corridors of his 19th floor eyrie his commentary remarks on “the weird institutional deja vu – the corporate workplace reminds me of high school.”

But fundamentally, Target is an essay in the processes of assimilation – of the kid by the corporation, of the kid’s music by the record company machine. “How naïve is that?” could be the po-mo(ronic) response to this precis of Target’s themes. But the film-maker’s no ingenue; he’s more interested in discovering whether it’s still possible even to be quizzical about the condition that Naomi Klein describes in her book No Logo as being “branded to the bone”. If the anti-WTO demonstrations proved anything it’s that it’s no longer enough just to raise an eyebrow and come over all resignedly mandarin about what the American journal of political satire The Baffler calls “the business of culture in the new Gilded Age”. To engage with it requires that one engage with the culture of business.

Wilcha’s time as Assistant Product Manager of Music Marketing at Columbia House coincided with two major developments in the music industry. First, there was the advent of ‘grunge’ with the major cross-over success of Nirvana’s Nevermind. Second, there was the change from vinyl to CD. “The ‘90s way of buying was to replace a vinyl collection completely,” Wilcha narrates. “Record clubs were one of the ways to do this.” Columbia House was reaching a market of 8 million subscribers a month but, as Wilcha discovered, was also ripping off its artists while reaping the dividends of sales and direct marketing. Artists would be paid reduced royalties and publishing rates on the sales of club CDs. These general infrastructural facts of music marketing are bought into focus by Wilcha’s own sense of cultural alignment with the alternative rock scene. With the release of Nirvana’s In Utero album, he’s put in charge of producing the magazine for Columbia House subscribers – the senior writer having resigned (the film’s good on the power-divisions between marketing types and ‘creatives’, the former working on the 19th floor, the latter subordinate on the 17th). Wilcha’s boss tells him: “This is a Gen X band. You can speak for them.” He duly writes the feature and finds himself “confronted by the fact that my identity as a punk rock fan and my job as a Columbia House employee have finally collided.” In gathering material for the film, Wilcha explores this dialectic while trying to demarcate some independent space: “For the past six months, taping has been a way of convincing myself that where I work isn’t who I am.” But it’s also a way of, if not reconciling the contradictions of his new-found corporate identity with his individual cultural identity, then bringing those contradictions into the open and of expressing a by no means fashionable uneasiness with the processes of appropriation and assimilation at play.

Yet Target is itself a document not so much compromised as complicated by its very access to internal corporate processes. I asked Wilcha if he was at all concerned that, in showing the film to management, he might realise that it could be the model of a new genre of media-savvy corporate training video? “The first screening (in 1999) coincided with a corporate merger,” he told me. “They [Columbia House] merged with CD Now, the giant online retailer, and the week of my New York screening was the week they were announcing the merger, so the screening was completely off the radar. Finally, in the weeks that followed, a bunch of upper management people, including the President, watched it. Some people disagreed with what I had to say. Others in management, comically enough, saw it as some kind of sociological study of a failed business experiment. They wanted to know how we could replicate that kind of consumer reaction on the web, instead of seeing it as an expression of how people felt about their jobs.”

As an ‘essay film’ – a hybrid genre of documentary observation and first-person intervention whose time has surely come round again – the strength of Target lies in the way it develops and explores its key theme of assimilation. Wilcha’s team produced a pilot version of the club magazine, successfully delivering a model for niche-marketing ‘alt.rock’ as well as ‘divulging club sales tactics, innovating the selection, sneaking in criticism – we put anything into the magazine we like.’ At which point, corporate assimilation takes yet another turn. “Management brings in an advertising agency who, for a fee, sell our idea back to the company. It shouldn’t have been a shock, but it was,” Wilcha relates.

The Target Shoots First can be seen as taking its place alongside the interventions and critiques of writers such as Klein and journals like The Baffler. It’s also of a part with, but at one remove from, the neo-Situationist, perceptual pranksterism of ‘culture jamming’. As a form of semiotic subversion, ‘culture jamming’ covers a range of art-based activism. From Adbusters’ satires on the values and techniques of advertising, through etoy’s interventions into the stock market exploring the porous boundaries between the business of art and the ‘art’ of business (see Mute 16), to rtMark’s overtly risky brand-sabotage activities, ‘culture jamming’ wagers – and in some senses seeks to redefine – avant-garde art strategies against the speed with which such strategies may be assimilated by their very corporate targets.

Wilcha, Klein and The Baffler represent a tendency that’s slightly different from this pranksterism – one that’s based on a necessary defensiveness in the face of the market without limits of reach and responsibility. The symptom of such defensiveness is to wrest back certain journalistic precepts – of investigation and independent critique – that should, by nature, be resistant to the glossy cant of marketing. Should be – but haven’t proved to be so. As media convergence has demonstrated, editorial values can quickly become hostages to advertising fortunes.

The value of the insights that Wilcha brings to bear on the coopting of ‘alternative culture’ is what really aligns Target with the work by journalists such as Klein and The Baffler. Culture becomes the field in which capitalism stalks the ever-newer ‘new’ and The Baffler has made analysis of this phenomenon its forte, along with the detailed institutional analysis of American journalism and union activity. The collection of ‘salvos’ from The Baffler published in Commodify your Dissent date from around the mid-90s but remain relevant in their splendidly distempered take on corporate culture as it chases, in ever decreasing circles, after the spectacle of the counter-culture until, as predicted, pop eats itself. And business picks up the tab. In the tail-chasing flurry of hungry assimilation, culture became marketing and marketing culture. In his 1995 essay ‘Alternative to What?’, Thomas Frank, co-founder of The Baffler, writes: “There are few spectacles corporate America enjoys more than a good counterculture, complete with hairdos of defiance, dark complaints about the stifling ‘mainstream’, and expensive accessories of all kinds. So it was only a matter of months after the discovery of ‘Generation X’ that the culture industry sighted an all-new youth movement, whose new looks, new rock bands, and menacing new ‘tude quickly became commercial shorthand for the rebel excitement associated with everything from Gen X ads and TV shows to the information revolution.”

The fear that both Wilcha and Thomas Frank identify with is that all ‘deviant’ cultures are so rapidly assimilated, that it’s increasingly difficult to out-manoeuvre the mainstream and that corporate culture is frighteningly adept at absorbing its dissident voices. ”I think it’s often very hard for Americans themselves to see what’s going on,” admits Frank. “One of the comments we keep getting from our readers’ letters is that they didn’t think that criticism like this still went on. We hear that all the time. In the US, the labour movement has really fallen off the cultural map. Thirty years ago every newspaper in the country had a labour reporter. Now the only ones that do are The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Chicago Tribune. Organised labour has to be the wellspring of scepticism towards the corporate universe. When those people showed up in Seattle, and a lot of them were from unions, this astonished people, they thought unionism was over in America.”

There is, inevitably, a generational issue here, a question of a shared cultural and political memory that corporate culture does its best to undermine and erase. Hence the accuracy in critiques of cultural ‘dumbing down’, where infantilisation of the public incubates precisely the willed, induced amnesia that makes a good, loyal consumer out of a former citizen with a cultural life and political allegiances. In this respect, Wilcha is smart to compare his absorption into the corporate world of work with that of his father, and understands that his is one of the (last?) generations with a sense of self that could still be located outside of the mall. “What my father went to business school to study,” he narrates, “I trained for simply by being a committed consumer.” In conversation he told me: “I’m 28 years old now and for a lot of kids who are around 25 – they’re labelled Generation Y – these concerns are invisible to them. If you’re in a band now, it’s no longer a question of selling out as far as having your music in advertising is concerned, it’s part of the marketing plan! It’s a given. Literally it’s been in the space of a couple of years that there’s been a whole change in consciousness about the relationship between art and commerce, with culture being used to prop up and sell things.”

We’ve been here before. Maybe we’ve been nowhere else since the 1950s. The professional Jeremiahs of Wilcha’s father’s generations were Vance Packard, author of The Hidden Persuaders, and Consumer’s Rights supremo Ralph Nader. Perhaps between them, Wilcha, Frank, Klein and others of their growing number might restore and revitalise critique, satire and analysis to the vital work of cultural analysis that exists outside of academia’s self-absorption. One that understands that ‘culture’ means more than the miasma produced by the multinational entertainment oligopoly where, in Don DeLillo’s phrase, “nothing happens until it’s consumed.” Perhaps we’re in for a new generation of characters (after all, in Target, Chris Wilcha is ‘Son of Organisation Man’) who haunt the corridors of corporate culture with their hostility and confusion yet to be dulled and bought off. Or perhaps we’ll just wake up one day, niched to within an inch of our lives.

Chris Darke <chris AT metamute.com>

Anthology: 
Proud to be Flesh

Culture Clubs

New Labour orthodoxy maintains, in line with its predecessor, that public private partnerships are the only way forward economically. Transport, health and education have been the most controversial new enterprise zones, but is the cultural sector's restructuring any less absolute? Anthony Davies and Simon Ford report

Where corporations once sponsored art and culture, they now ‘co-produce’ it. Where their structures used to be rigidly hierarchical, they are now flexible and networked. These shifts render unworkable all sorts of categories we used to employ when distinguishing between the public and private spheres. In an effort to identify the often elusive architecture — and architects — of the new cultural economy, Anthony Davies and Simon Ford report on a representative sample of Third Way alliances.

Today, a new variety of club is emerging: a type of club dedicated to the networking of culturepreneurs and the business community. Much of this activity has been in line with organisational and structural shifts occurring in the corporate sector — principally, the shift from centralised hierarchical structures to flat, networked forms of organisation. In this report we look at how these networks and ‘new’ economies are being formed, accessed and utilised, where they converge and where they disperse.

In the late 1990s the surge to merge culture with the economy was a key factor in London’s bid to consolidate its position as the European centre of the global financial services industry. Culture was part of the marketing mix that, within the context of the European Union (EU), kept London ahead of its competitors, particularly Frankfurt.<1> This can be traced back to the UK’s exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992 and a range of economic initiatives aimed at attracting inward investment, or Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). During this period the UK accounted for 40 per cent of Japanese, US and Asian investment in the EU. ‘Cool Britannia’ may have been a media spectacle, but it was the need to attract FDI, combined with the co-ordinates of a new service-based economy, that underpinned London’s spectacular emergence as the ‘coolest city on the planet’. (This state of affairs could be about to change with the proposed link-up between Frankfurt’s Deutsche Börse and the London Stock Exchange (i.e. the iX market) and the recent German tax reforms that will pave the way for a radical restructuring of its corporate landscape.<2> With higher international inward and portfolio investment and the combined iX market, Germany looks set to become the leading market destination for young companies, making Berlin’s pitch to become the new cultural ‘it location’ look increasingly viable.<3>)

In London it was the cultural requirements of the ‘new’ economy that resulted in the emergence of culture brokers — intermediaries who sold services and traded knowledge and culture to a variety of clients outside the gallery system, from advertising companies and property developers to restaurateurs and upmarket retail outlets. Job descriptions such as artist, curator, critic and gallerist no longer reflected the range of activities these individuals were engaged in. For culture-brokers art production was just one element that, along with the music, drug, fashion, design, club and political scenes, could be brought together, mediated and repackaged in a range of formats, from exhibitions and websites to corporate parties and instore merchandising.<4> At the same point many companies were beginning to move away from sponsorship towards an integrated partnership or alliance strategy. This marked a further shift from the ‘something for nothing’ arm’s-length philanthropic model to a ‘something for something’ contract in which marketing departments perceived cultural (and often environmental) programming as an integral part of ethical marketing strategies (the so-called Total Role in Society).<5>

Along with these new developments corporate strategists realised that, because of the emerging knowledge-based economy, a company or individual could be valued principally on ‘intangible assets’ (e.g. intellectual capital and access to networks). This brought about a revolution in the corporate sector.<6> The underlying trend has been to develop flatter, more flexible and intelligent forms of organisation. This, in turn, has put pressure on companies to form alliances and break down inflexible departmental structures and initiate cross-departmental project teams (increasingly staffed by short-term or outsourced contract workers). Indeed, we have recently witnessed the birth of an alliance culture that collapses the distinctions (or boundaries) between companies, nation states, governments, private individuals and even the protest movement, as we shall demonstrate later. This trend towards alliances and partnerships has resulted in what have been variously described as ‘virtual’ or ‘boundary-less’ organisations. It has also made it increasingly difficult to identify ‘cores’: as companies loosen their physical structures through outsourcing, concerns have also been raised about the danger that core activities are disappearing, leaving fragile shells or ‘hollow’ organisations.<7>

A number of corporate organisations are currently gauging the potential of extending their networks into strategic alliances with other sectors, particularly the public sector.<8> This new alliance culture between the public and private sectors can be seen within the context of the UK government’s drive to establish a Third Way in which ‘public’ is no longer equated solely with ‘the state’, but with a combination of public/private agencies. With the private sector leading the way, public institutions are undergoing an ideological and structural transformation to make themselves more compatible with corporate alliance programmes. Like their corporate partners, many cultural institutions now perceive their role as ‘hanging out with culture’, interacting with and being part of it. In their drive to formalise informality, they provide what are essentially convergence zones for corporate and creative networks to interact, overlap with one another and form ‘weak’ ties. The prominence that events such as charity auctions, exhibition openings, talk programmes and award dinners have attained demonstrates how central face-to-face social interaction is to the functional capacity of these new alliances.

Some institutions go further. At London’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), for example, a networking club for cultural entrepreneurs and, initially at least, educationalists, arts administrators, television executives and business consultants has been set up in conjunction with Goldsmiths College, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA), Channel 4, the Arts Council and Cap Gemini.<9> The Club is coordinated by Andrew Chetty and Sarah Duke at the ICA, Andrew Warren at Cap Gemini and Alan Phillogene at the Centre for Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths College. It is an invite-only monthly event that provides "a networking base for its members" and promises to introduce them to agencies from television companies to venture capitalists and private organisations who "may wish to support and commission them".

Through initiatives like The Club the ICA aims to become the leading institutional home for cultural entrepreneurs and perceives its role as a facilitator and "ideal forum for the cross fertilisation of ideas, and support base for these enterprises".<10> After the success of the first two meetings at the ICA, the third will reputedly take place at Channel Four in September. Such nomadism indicates that The Club itself has no fixed base or home and can move to any location within the network. This makes identifying the core organisation difficult and, in line with the complex and often hidden alliances that characterise the new corporate landscape, it raises serious questions of transparency, representation and accountability.

Given their foregrounding of The Club’s ‘development and growth’ potential, its coordinators must be aware of the current sale talks surrounding First Tuesday, the market leader of match-making clubs for internet entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. With 100,000 members on its database and the claim to have raised $150m in seed capital from its networking events, it is no surprise that its valuation of £33.5m was based principally on access to its "extensive database of the digital elite".<11>

A variety of means exist to finance these clubs. First Tuesday take a two per cent commission on deals, while other culture clubs generate capital through membership (The Fourth Room) or building the most "influential list of contacts in the world" (Free Thinking). With the creative industries generating £60bn a year (seven per cent of national gross domestic product) and estimated to increase at a rate of 5% per year, it is no surprise that The Club is endorsed by both government agencies (NESTA) and private companies.

At this stage it is difficult to locate the mutual bonds and orientation of The Club, but it is a good example of the emerging inter-organisational relationships that characterise the ‘new’ economy. With representatives from the corporate, state, media, educational and cultural sectors, it may also represent the initial stages of a corporatised future for UK cultural and educational institutions. This falls in line with the forthcoming DTI spending review, which aims to refocus its funds into promoting enterprise, small business and ‘knowledge transfer’ and to "concentrate on managing change rather than attempting to direct companies’ activities."<12>

In the education sector ‘knowledge transfer’ translates into an £80m fund (the University Innovation Fund) to establish consultancies that will mediate between universities and businesses. With the ICA and Goldsmiths College stepping up contact with Cap Gemini and providing a "support base (and provider) for enterprise", the so-called revolutionary venture capital models proposed by companies like The Fourth Room come into the equation.

The Fourth Room was set up by former Chairman of The Research Business Wendy Gordon, founder of brand consultancy Wolff Olins Michael Wolff and former head of strategy at Interbrand Newell and Sorrell Piers Schmidt in 1998 as a hangout zone and creative bolt-hole for corporate executives and other ‘leading individuals’. It has been variously described as a business development club, a networking club and a strategic marketing consultancy which aims to take the strain out of networking and "put together venture ideas and management teams and take them from the moment of thinking through to the patent or crystallised idea".<13>

The £10,000 per annum membership fee includes use of the clubhouse in central London and access to "focus groups comprising of [sic] ‘ordinary’ people and teenagers who will act as sounding boards for new ideas".<14> In addition to the clubhouse, members receive a weekly in-house publication and an opportunity to eavesdrop on "emerging cultural trends and monitor changing patterns and beliefs".<15> This is described by the company as a corporate early warning system. As with The Club at the ICA, very little information is publicly available, but we know that The Fourth Room is "dazzlingly white, with high ceilings, long windows and white painted floorboards" and that members are encouraged to draw on the walls with coloured crayons to release their creativity.<16> As Piers Schmidt claims, "it’s all about collaboration", and to this end the aim is to get CEOs mixing with eco-activists like Swampy to discuss environmental issues over breakfast.

The relationship between Cap Gemini and the ICA and Swampy’s proposed breakfast with CEOs at the Fourth Room indicates that terms such as ‘collaboration’ can be utilised to mask a variety of vested interests. The recent shift in terminology regarding arts funding (i.e. away from ‘sponsored by’ towards ‘co-production’, ‘in partnership with’, ‘in association with’ and ‘co-produced by’) is also indicative of a new agenda based on alliances and an increased corporate decision-making role in cultural programming. A signal event in this diversification was the UK-based Association of Business Sponsorship of the Arts (ABSA) rebranding itself as Arts & Business (A&B), in the conviction that "the arts are the new secret weapon of business success". As a government funded organisation A&B have taken collaboration and alliances a step further through the Professional Development Programme and the NatWest Board Bank, which has placed 1500 young executives on the boards of arts companies.<17>

The Creative Forum members at A&B, who include American Express Europe, Arthur Andersen and Interbrand Newell and Sorrell, are seen as the ‘shock troops’ in the involvement of arts in companies and as a result A&B receive £5.05m a year from the government to run the Pairing Scheme. The arts organisations, it is claimed, gain from the decision making and entrepreneurial skills of the executives, while the executives gain valuable experience in creative processes through working with artists.

Other examples of recent collaborations follow an informal, networked and often hidden alliance-type arrangement between galleries, public institutions and corporations. An alliance-type project covered by this new lexicon is the Fig-1 website, project space and club founded by curator Mark Francis and gallerist Jay Jopling and financed by Bloomberg, the financial information company. Fig-1 aims to present 50 projects in 50 weeks; given such a collaboration, the claim to be simultaneously "in association with" Bloomberg and "independent, non-profit [and] free from institutional and commercial obligations" seems curiously paradoxical.<18> Rather, it appears that Fig-1 operates as a (principally new media) satellite organisation for White Cube and a cultural scratch-and-sniff site for Bloomberg.

We turn finally to a consideration of what might be termed ‘political engagement’. In order to meet the challenge posed by these new alliances and networked global businesses, new forms of flexible and subversive organisation have emerged that can disperse and re-form anywhere, at any time.<19> These strategic movements also take into account the fact that company networks and hollow organisations actively solicit and harness counter discourses to service the illusion of dissent and dialogue.<20> In a networked culture, the topographical metaphor of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ has become increasingly untenable. As all sectors loosen their physical structures, flatten out, form alliances and dispense with tangible centres, the oppositionality that has characterised previous forms of protest and resistance is finished as a useful model.

In the cultural sector (particularly the ‘cutting edge’ art world), with so many brokers acting as corporate-friendly conduits to an artificially constructed ‘outside’, ‘marginal’ and ‘socially engaged’ culture, it should come as no surprise that these oppositional metaphors, for some, are difficult to dispense with.<21> Yet in contrast to such attitudes, more astute activists and agitators who once spoke of critical distance now recognise that their challenge lies in the forms and quality of access and connection. Fittingly, a useful new metaphor for this challenge comes from the world of digital systems. In a networked society individuals and groups are constantly alternating between ‘on’ and ‘off’. As a result we can expect to see emerging new forms of ‘engagement’ which exercise border controls on networks, withhold, filter and restrict access to information and disable ‘eavesdropping’ strategies and ‘early warning systems’ employed by business consultancies, corporations and public institutions.<22> The extent and nature of these forms is still to be determined and will be examined more closely at a later date. But it can already be asserted that informal networks have become extremely effective forms of counter organisation in the sense that — just as with corporate alliances — it is extremely difficult to define their boundaries and identify who belongs to them. Informal networks are also replacing older political groups based on formal rules and fixed organisational structures and chains of command. The emergence of a decentralised transnational network-based protest movement represents a significant threat to those sectors that are slow in transforming themselves from local and centralised hierarchical bureaucracies into flat, networked organisations.

These developments are taking place against a backdrop of waning confidence and belief in the ability of governments to regulate the growing power of global corporations and their networks of influence. But thanks to corporate restructuring and the access it provides to global networks, new forms of knowledge-based political engagement promise possibilities and scales of effect previously unimaginable.

Anthony Davies and Simon Ford <sford AT metamute.com>

FOOTNOTES:<1> Graham, George, ‘Overseas banks warned on London’ and Graham, George and Timewell, Stephen, ‘City confident of keeping status’, The Banker supplement, Financial Times, 27 November 1997.

<2> Grass, Doris and Boland, Vincent, ‘Deutsche Börse board split on link up with the LSE’, Financial Times, 13 July 2000; and Simonian, Haig, ‘German tax reforms set to aid investors’, Financial Times, 15 July 2000.

<3> Powell, Nicholas, ‘Avant-garde flock to Berlin’, Financial Times Weekend, 3/4 October 1998.

<4> For a fuller discussion of these developments see Ford, Simon and Davies, Anthony, ‘Art Futures’, Art Monthly, no. 223, February 1999.

<5> For a discussion of this concept see Law, Andy, Open Minds, London: Orion Business, 1999; and Alburty, Stephen, ‘The Ad Agency to End All Ad Agencies’, Fast Company, no. 6, December 1996.

<6> The INNFORM research programme found widespread initiatives in almost all new forms of corporate organisation in the period 1992-1996. See Whittington, Richard et al, ‘New notions of organisational fit’, Financial Times, 29 November 1999.

<7> Centre for Research in Strategic Purchasing and Supply (CRISPS). Returning to core or creating a hollow? Bath: Bath University, 1999.

<8> See Capital Strategies, the city corporate finance house, ‘Education News’ at [http://www.capitalstrategies.co.uk]

<9> Cap Gemini Ernst & Young is one of the world’s largest management consulting and computer services firms and has collaborated with the ICA on previous occasions, most notably Imaginaria ’99. The ICA’s definition of ‘cultural entrepreneur’ is derived from an earlier collaboration with Demos. See Leadbeater, Charles and Oakley, Kate, The Independents, Demos: London, November 1999.

<10> Duke, Sarah, The Club press release, 14 June 2000.

<11> Daniel, Caroline, ‘First Tuesday in sale talks’, Financial Times, 20 July 2000.

<12> Brown, Kevin, ‘DTI allocated funds to boost enterprise’, Financial Times, 17 July 2000.

<13> Schmidt, Piers, ‘Me and My Partner: Michael Wolff and Piers Schmidt’, The Independent, 7 April 1999.

<14> Jones, Helen, ‘Help is at hand to make the right contacts’, Financial Times, 12 February 1999.

<15> The Fourth Room, Invitation booklet, London: The Fourth Room, 2000.

<16> Deeble, Sandra, ‘Fourth Room opens the doors of perception’, Financial Times, 30 December 1999.

<17> See the Arts & Business website [http://www.absa.org.uk]; and Thorncroft, Antony, ‘From a cosy warm glow to hot support’, Financial Times, 6 September 1999.

<18> See its website [http://www.fig-1.com]

<19> See, for example, Vidal, John, ‘The World@War’, The Guardian, Society Section, 19 January 2000.

<20> See Knight, Philip ‘A forum for improving globalisation’, Financial Times, August 1 2000, and Tomkins, Richard, ‘Global chief thinks locally (Douglas Daft is persuading protestors to drink cans of Coke, not smash them)’, Financial Times, August 1 2000.

<21> See Art Monthly, Editorial, February 2000, No 233: "It is hard to resist the lure of direct action, particularly for those of us frustrated by the inexorable process of commodification of even the most critical art practices, and by the marginal position occupied by art in our society as a whole." And exhibitions: ‘Unconvention’, Centre for the Visual Arts in Cardiff, November 1999 - Jan 2000, and ‘Crash’, Institute of Contemporary Arts, November 1999.

<22> See Carpenter, Merlin and Davies, Anthony, ‘The protest had already impacted on London in the form of its absence’, from the catalogue As a painter I call myself the estate of, Secession, Vienna, 2000.

Anthology: 
Proud to be Flesh

Learning the Right Lessons

Whatever happened to tactical media? David Garcia, one of the genre’s early formulators, takes C6’s recent publication DIY Survival as an opportunity to reflect on the general state of cultural politics after its net propelled reinvention in the `90s. Concerned with the commercial cannibalisation of tactical media, he identifies a need to connect its ‘hit and run’ ephemerality with more permanent structures of resistance

In 2005, the London based artist/activist outfit C6 published DIY Survival, a short book to coincide with their show, Sold Out. In the intro C6 declare their aim to ‘produce a guide of tactical means for collective art making’. The result is an amalgam of bits and pieces, ranging from the serious and helpful through to the self-mocking and frankly trite. This material has been helpfully divided into three sections: DIY Theory, DIY How To and finally DIY Case Studies. Part of the book’s patchiness might be the result of a decision to minimise editorial intervention. Whether there was any selection is not quite clear. The intro tells us that the contents are the result of an open call put out to a number of sympathetic internet mailing lists, but it is unclear whether there was any further editorial selection or intervention. We are simply told that they were ‘immersed in a flood of responses’ and ‘decided that their task was to let chance take over’.

It is clear from the outset that this book addresses the area of practice that, a decade ago, some of us dubbed ‘tactical media’ – although C6 wisely avoid a term that has already become quasi-institutionalised. Nevertheless most aspects of what could be described as tactical media are represented in this book.

The term was originally coined to identify and describe a movement which occupied a ‘no man’s land’ on the borders of experimental media art, journalism and political activism, a zone that was, in part, made possible by the mass availability of a powerful and flexible new generation of media tools. This constellation of tools and disciplines was also accompanied by a distinctive set of rejections: of the position of objectivity in journalism, of the discipline and instrumentalism of traditional political movements, and finally of the mythic baggage and atavistic personality cults of the art world. This organised ‘negativity’ together with a love of fast, ephemeral, improvised collaborations gave this culture its own distinctive spirit and style and helped to usher in new levels of unpredictability and volatility to both cultural politics and the wider media landscape. But this was long ago and the practices have long since become a familiar part of the media diet. So the question arises as to whether or not C6’s DIY Survival is taking us anywhere new. Whatever the answer, it should at least give us the opportunity to take stock, and ask whether any parts of this kind of practice retains value or credibility in a world it helped to change.

The cover of DIY Survival is sharp and funny and immediately raises expectations. It is a clever simulation of an ‘Airfix’ style model building kit, featuring one of those ubiquitous plastic frames to which the components of model Apache helicopters, Sherman tanks and so forth were attached. But in this version we find instead the miniature parts needed to construct today’s media ‘freedom fighter’: camcorder, lap-top, balaclava, graffiti spray can etc. Although the book’s cover can compete for attention with anything on the magazine rack, once inside we are transported back into a ghetto – the world of the 1970s fanzines. There is even an ironic (I hope) nod to the punk godfathers of DIY culture, with endless images of safety pins appearing to hold the disparate bits of content together. Of course it’s all very knowing, displaying a desire to recuperate the fast and furious punk ethos using 21st century Print On Demand technology. The trouble is C6’s DIY Survival suffers badly in comparison with the angry high-octane visual flare of punk. It is not that this uniquely English sense of failure, madness and defiant hedonism has disappeared, but you’d be better off looking for it on the NeasdenControlCenter website or watching an episode of Black Books or even listening to the Baby Shambles.

But if we are able to turn a blind eye (and it’s difficult) to the style problems, there is some useful and informative stuff to be found, particularly in the DIY How To section which includes the hacklab mini-manual for building Linux networks from cast off terminals and a piece with tips for creating a wireless node. But all too often the good stuff is undermined by cheesy, cop out, self-mockery such as the ‘How to be a Citizen Reporter’ photo-style guide or the risible cardboard cut out for ‘Robot Buddies’. The accumulated effect does little more than suggest an enclosed micro culture every bit as self-regarding as the white cube art it purports to undermine.

The Homeopathic Option

In the DIY Theory section there are some valuable moments, but it would have been so much more accessible (or just readable) with a more active editorial presence. For instance, it is great to have some of the distinctive rhetorical style of Brazilian ‘Midia Tactica’ in Hernani Dimantas’s piece ‘Linkania – The Hyperconnected Multitude’. But the text’s value is undermined by too many unexplained references, such as one to Globo – Brazil’s near monopolistic media giant. On the level of detail this is a trivial complaint, but more importantly without some clearer context we lose a sense of the uniquely Brazilian ‘cannibalistic’ interpretation of media tactics.

Wisely the book chooses to kick off with its most coherent and tightly argued essay, Marcus Verhagen’s 'Of Avant Gardes and Tail Ends'. This piece is worth closer examination not least because it could be assembled into if not exactly a DIY Survival manifesto then at least an articulation of its core belief in art’s sovereign role as subversive agent. For the most part the text is a brief history of the gradual erosion of the avant garde’s subversive bite. Verhagen makes useful but overly simplified distinctions, such as his opposition between the ‘critical’ and the ‘hermetic’ avant garde. One of his most telling points is to have identified the way in which art has relinquished any aspiration to depict utopias in anything but ironic form. ‘The utopian imagery’, he writes, ‘once conceived by Signac and Leger as force for social renewal, is now the preserve of Benetton and Disney. How often are utopian visions offered without irony in contemporary art?’

This is just one of the arguments Verhagen mobilises to insist that the critical art and media which orientate themselves to traditional fine art contexts are pointless since the real power now lies elsewhere. He describes the contemporary landscape thus, ‘Hollywood film, the magazine advertisement, or hit single: these constitute a more powerful force than the concert hall or the museum, they more faithfully represent the dominant values of the day and are better suited to co-opting avant-gardist work; after all commoditisation is more effective than canonisation’.

In the last few paragraphs of the essay, Verhagen advocates deploying Frederic Jameson’s ‘homeopathic strategies’ that seem to consist of a Foucault-like process of ‘unmasking’ power – a form of ideology critique carried out with images. It is hard to see how this differs from the approach which has become a familiar part of visual art’s currency since the first wave of critical post-modernism of the 1970s and 80s where mass cultural phenomena are examined and reproduced to ‘reveal their internal workings, their means and objectives.’

Verhagen goes on to claim that ‘homeopathic works are more difficult for the mainstream culture to appropriate because they are already in some sense part of it.’ This is all too true but, far from representing the ultimate in subversion, such an approach results in producing mere epiphenomena of communicative capitalism not only tolerated but consumed by it with relish. It is not that cultural or information politics are not important, it is just that outside of a broader context and strategy of meaningful confrontations they are simply not enough.

In his final clarion call Verhagen declares that ‘the grand subversions of the nineteenth century are coming to seem almost quaint, homeopathic tactics are surely more effective’. I would argue that the direct opposite is the case. It is only when the ideology critiques of image (or code) are deployed as part of a more general strategy of direct action that things start to move. The case of the AIDS activist campaigning group ACT UP’s use of visual tactics in the 1990’s are a classic demonstration of how cultural politics can have real power.

Telestreets’ Dilemma

The report on the Italian Telestreets movement by Slavina Feat (mysteriously placed in the DIY How To section) encapsulates the limitations of the book whilst at the same time pointing to an instructive example. The report is about the Italian micro TV movement Telestreets and a sister organisation New Global Vision, a collective of Italian hackers who have used BitTorrent to disseminate an archive of radical political video on the net whilst also helping Telestreets to distribute local content nationally.

Feat’s report is another of DIY Survival’s missed opportunities. It goes no further than re-cycling the familiar Telestreets hype that has been doing the rounds for a couple of years. It fails to raise the questions that we need to ask about this movement. To begin with what is the status of the network today? Is it growing or shrinking, or did it, (as I suspect, but do not know) reach its high watermark nearly two years ago? Is Telestreets now in decline, or worse, in the process of fragmenting under the weight of its own internal contradictions? Surely a book with a critical agenda must aspire to more than publicity puffs like this.

The Telestreets example is important because it embodies some of the starker choices for those involved in tactical media. These dilemmas were already visible in a Telestreets meeting, which took place in Senigallia in 2004. This meeting coincided with the moment that the infamous Gasparri law was being pushed through the Italian parliament. This law, named after the then minister of communication, allowed Berlusconi to consolidate his domination of the Italian mediascape.

Nothing defines the connection between media power and political power so well, because so crudely, as the Berlusconi phenomenon and the passing of this bill. So given the fact that this was a defining moment for Telestreets, the choice to hold the meeting in Senigallia, a small coastal resort was surprising. Although there were good reasons for this choice, Franco Berardi (Bifo) lead a number of dissenting voices in arguing that Telestreets had missed the boat and that they urgently needed to raise the stakes and focus their energies on mobilising resistance against the Berlusconi regime. By over emphasising expressive or artistic interventions and micro-media at the expense of direct confrontation, Telestreets was slipping into irrelevance. Bifo ended his ‘hair raising’ speech by declaring ‘the last thing we should be doing is embrace our miserable marginality’.

The Old Split

This Telestreets anecdote illuminates three interconnected tendencies that have emerged since the tactical media of the ‘90s. Firstly there is a widespread rejection of the homeopathic and the micro-political in favour of ambitions scaled up to global proportions coupled with a willingness to move beyond electronic and semiotic civil disobedience and to engage in direct action, to literally ‘re-claim the streets’. This is almost entirely as a result of the emergence of the powerful global anti-capitalist movement that (from its perspective) has transformed tactical media into the ‘Indy-media’ project. But there is also a third less visible and more troubling tendency, a tendency towards internal polarisation. This polarisation is based on a deep split which has opened up between many of the activists at the core of the new political movements and the artists or theorists who, whilst continuing to see themselves as radicals, retain a belief in the importance of cultural (and information) politics in any movement for social transformation. Although I have little more than personal experience and anecdotal evidence to go on, it seems to me, that there is a significant growth in suspicion and frequently outright hostility among activists over the presence of art and artists in ‘the movement’, particularly those whose work cannot be immediately instrumentalised by the new ‘soldiers of the left’.

So what is it that has changed since the ‘90s to give rise to these tendencies? To understand we must cast our minds back to the peculiar historical conditions of that time. The early phase of tactical media re-injected a new energy into the flagging project of ‘cultural politics’. It fused the radical and pragmatic info politics of the hackers with well-established practice based critiques of representation. The resulting tactical media was also part of (and arguably compromised by) the wider internet and communications revolution of the ‘90s which, like the music of the 1960s, acted as a universal solvent not only dissolving disciplinary boundaries but also the boundaries separating long established political formations. The power some of us attributed to this new ‘media politics’ appeared to be born out by the role that all forms of media seemed to have played in the collapse of the Soviet Empire. It seemed as though old style armed insurrection had been superseded by digital dissent and media revolutions. It was as if the Samizdat spirit, extended and intensified by the proliferation of Do-it-yourself media, had rendered the centralised statist tyrannies of the Soviet Union untenable. Some of us allowed ourselves to believe that it would only be a matter of time before the same forces would challenge our own tired and tarnished oligarchies. Furthermore the speed and comparative bloodlessness of the Soviet collapse suggested that the transformations that were coming would not have to be achieved through violence or personal sacrifice. This would be the era of the painless ‘win win’ revolution in which change would occur simply through the hacker ethos of challenging the domains of forbidden knowledge. It came to be believed that top down power had lost its edge. As late as 1999 in his Reith lecture, Anthony Giddens could still confidently assert that ‘The information monopoly upon which the Soviet system was based had no future in an intrinsically open framework of global communications’.

Giddens and other third way social theorists were part of a wider movement who dreamed that the profound political differences that had divided previous generations had been put on hold. This was made credible through the ubiquity of one of the dominant myths of the information age, a myth shared by activists and new media entrepreneurs alike. The myth that knowledge will set you free. This founding narrative of techno-culture visible from Ted Nelson ‘Computer Lib’ onwards, recycles (in intensified form) the age old proposition that knowledge and freedom are not only connected but may actually entail one another.

The fact that a belief in the necessary relationship between knowledge and freedom has gone largely unquestioned is based in part on the depth of its lineage, ‘ancient stoics and most modern rationalists are at one with Christian teaching on this issue’. And ‘ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free’. As Isaiah Berlin pointed out in 1968, ‘This proposition is not self evidently true, if only on empirical grounds.’ It is, he asserted, ‘one of the least plausible beliefs ever entertained by profound and influential thinkers.’1 In addition to being fallacious the accompanying rhetoric of transparency, freedom, access, participation, and even creativity, has come to constitute the ideological foundation of ‘communicative capitalism’, transforming tactical media’s homeopathic micro-politics into the experimental wing of the so-called ‘creative industries’ and ‘corroborating the temporal mode of post-Fordist capital: short-termism.’ 2

Neo-liberalism’s effective capture of the rhetoric of ‘freedom’ and ‘creativity’, has re-opened an old fault-line which the first wave of tactical media did so much to bridge; the fault-line dividing artists from political activists. The theorist and activist Brian Holmes described its origins as going (at least) as far back as the cultural politics of the1960s. He describes a split ‘between the traditional working-class concern for social justice and the New Left concern for individual emancipation and full recognition and expression of particular identities.’ According to this account corporate foundations and think tanks of the ‘80s and ‘90s have succeeded in inculcating market-oriented variations on earlier counter-cultural values, rendering the interventions of artists (including tactical media makers) profoundly if unwittingly, de-politicising. Holmes goes on to describe (or assert, I am not quite sure which) a critique in which ‘the narcissistic exploration of self, sexuality and identity become the leitmotif of bourgeois urban culture. Artistic freedom and artistic license have led, in effect, to the neo-liberalisation of culture.’3 The puritanical and authoritarian tone of this analysis is just a little unnerving. At the very least this tendency could lead to a crass and oppressive philistinism and might signal far worse to come.

Bifo’s plea at the Senegallia meeting in 2004 for Telestreets (and by extension all artist/activists) to scale up our ambitions is increasingly being answered. There is a growing number of inspiring cases which we can point to: the Yes Men’s achievement in securing global distribution in mainstream cinemas, Yomango’s high voltage contributions to the global, protest movement and Witness.org’s extensive inititiatives in which the provision of indigenous activists with DIY media with their campaigns is connected to the legal processes of human rights. These and many other interventions are pointing to the growing willingness to strategically globalise dissent. This process has been accompanied by growing willingness to relinquish the cult of ‘ephemerality’ – one of the shibboleths of tactical media. In place of the hit and run guerrilla activism, the direct opposite is now required, ‘duration’. It’s a time for longer-term commitments and deeper engagements with the people and organisations networked around contested issues.

One of the most extraordinary examples of these developments is ‘Women on Waves’ a Dutch Foundation initiated by the Rebecca Gomperts who studied medicine at the University of Amsterdam and specialised as an abortion doctor and then went on to study visual arts at the Rietveld Academy and Sailing at the Enkhuizen Zeevaartschool (Nautical College). The most celebrated achievement of Women on Waves is the Abortion Boat, a large floating clinic that tactically exploits maritime law, anchoring the boat just outside the 12-mile zones of countries where abortion is forbidden. On the Abortion Boat women can be given information and terminations performed by a team of Dutch medical practitioners (including Dr Gomperts) on Dutch ‘territory’. Thus, women are actively assisted and local organisations are supported and inspired in their struggle to legalise abortion.

Along with the practical intervention of the Abortion Boat, Women on Waves also uses art and design as part of their global campaign for abortion rights. For instance the I had an Abortion installation consisting of vests on wire coat hangers printed with this statement in all European languages. On their website a diary can be found of a Brazilian woman relating her experiences of wearing one of these t-shirts. The continued validity of the modes of political address pioneered by tactical media are apparent in her account of how the message on these t-shirts was preferable to something like ‘Legalise Abortion!’ that might have read like earlier forms of agit prop. These t-shirts function ‘not’ she declares to ‘make myself a target. That was not the point; it was to give all those women without a face a support. As to say, don't worry, it's all right, you’re all right.’ This fulfils one of the prime directives of classical tactical media, unlike traditional agit prop, it is designed to invite discourse.

The example of Women on Waves is a reminder that cultural politics in its modern sense was in large part a creation of the women’s movement. Those who question its value would do well to remember that feminism also served to transform the lives and politics of many men who were taught (sometimes painfully) that they were failing to live out in their ordinary lives the democratic values they publicly espoused. The way in which ‘culture’ is central to feminism’s demands and not peripheral is powerfully explored by Terry Eagleton in his valuable book After Theory which describes the centrality of ‘the grammar’ in which the demands of feminism were framed. ‘Value, speech, image, experience and identity are here the very language of political struggle, as they are in all ethnic or sexual politics. Ways of feeling and forms of political representation are in the long run quite as crucial as child care provision or equal pay.’4 This expanded political language was articulated not by activists and writers alone but by many important women artists. Women artists were critical in shifting the centre of gravity of the art world of the ‘60s and ‘70s from Greenberg’s formalism to a new expressive and subject centred naturalism, which remains influential and important to this day. Whatever the ambiguities, impurities and problems, and there are plenty, we should not be tempted to relinquish the essential legacy of cultural politics.

DIY Survival is not alone in failing to face up to the dilemmas and choices that confront us. There is much in the realm of the activist/art scene that, like C6’s book, uncritically replicates myths of the information age along with the twin obsessions of the ratings-driven news cycle – spectacle and immediacy. If C6’s DIY Survival has achieved anything it is as a timely reminder of the need not only to move on and learn new lessons but also, crucially to learn the right lessons.

Info DiY Survival, eds. Betti Marenko & Leon C6, C6, 2005 http://www.c6.org http://womenonwaves.org

Footnotes

1. Isaiah Berlin, ‘From Hope and Fear Set Free’, 1968 2.Ned Rossiter & Geert Lovink, ‘Dawn of the Organised Networks’, http://www.nettime.org (2005) 3. Brian Holmes, ‘The Scandal of the Word “Class”: A Review of David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford UP, 2005)’, http://www.nettime.org 4. Terry Eagleton, After Theory, (Penguin 2003)

Anthology: 
Proud to be Flesh

Wide Area Disturbance

It is something of a cliché to say that net culture is in constant flux. However, recent seismic shifts in the political and cultural landscape brought about by the economic downturn, the further militarisation of American foreign policy after September 11 and the museumification of net.art are forcing many to rethink the aims of electronic engagement. Here, interdisciplinary artist and writer Coco Fusco talks to hacktivist and Electronic Disturbance Theater member Ricardo Dominguez about the hybrid net_art_activism‚ past and future

Coco Fusco: Has there been a significant change in the focus of anti-globalisation activism in the aftermath of Genoa and the attack on the World Trade Center?

Ricardo Dominguez: No. Activists are still asking the same questions about neo-liberalism, and they are still using the same tactics to disrupt the gatherings of the G8 and the IMF around the globe. Interaction between the NGOs and street activists is the same – one leverages the other. Everyone seems to agree that the violence of Genoa and September 11 should not derail the use of non-violent direct action. In addition, the same critiques of the anti-globalisation movement persist: that it lacks a coherent ideology; that it does not offer any workable solutions to top-down globalisation; that it disregards the last 50 years of extremely violent struggle against neo-liberalism in the South. The South’s political and social thought offers possible reforms that can really challenge the North’s neo-liberal agenda and which shouldn’t be ignored. Many say that the cultural thought and political practices coming from Chiapas, Woomera, Porto Alegre and Kerala can displace the narcissism of activists in the North.

CF: But the activists in the North have to stop believing the media hype that represents them as the only protagonists of note in what is actually a global struggle against dehumanising policies and growing poverty. Activists in the third world have been subject to harassment, surveillance, imprisonment, torture and even disappearance for decades without receiving much attention from the North. While it may appeal to the leftist activists and netizens in the North to promote the idea that, in a post 9-11 world, they have all been deemed ‘the enemy’ in the same way that the entire Arab world has been designated as a target by the US military, this is simply not true. No hackers in the US have been singled out for investigation as a result of the passing of the Patriot Act – at least not yet. If we focus solely on what is happening to Americans and Europeans interested in social change and whether they are imperiled, we end up supporting the American position that posits ‘our’ victimisation as more significant than the rest of the world’s.

RD: Another important issue is the strategic viability of an ‘eventism’. The ‘tourism’ of city hopping from Seattle to Genoa is becoming an empty spectacle of violent confrontations for the media and policy makers, and the movement is being constrained by events organised by global power brokers. Issues beyond protest are being forgotten. This type of ‘eventism’ also dictates the distribution of information produced by net.activists working for Independent Media Centres and related websites. Perhaps it is time to turn towards another form of ‘eventism’ in order to dismantle neo-liberalism. The Zapatistas, for example, convoke their own events rather than responding to those organised by others.

CF: Do you see a shift in the attitude of street activists and NGOs regarding their sense of the viability or relevance of hacktivism?

RD: Yes. In 1998, when Electronic Disturbance Theatre (EDT) launched FloodNet, very few activists or hackers saw any use for direct action on-line. Between 1999 and 2001, EDT and other proponents of hacktivism began to have a marginal presence at Hacker and Street Activist conferences. 2600 is now calling for more panels on Independent Media Centres, street activism, hacking and hacktivism at their next event because net.activism was so well received at their last event. This is an important sign that activism may be moving more to the centre of hacking culture which may have a chance to gain some much needed political depth.

CF: EDT has not carried out any FloodNet actions in support of the Zapatistas during the past year. What has been happening with the Zapatistas in recent months?

RD: EDT has refrained from any actions because the Zapatistas have not made an international call for direct action against the Fox government at this time. They have been in a time of deep silence (since the two week march from Chiapas to Mexico City in March of 2001), thinking about the next stage of actions against the Mexican government’s development of the Puebla-Panama Plan. This entails building a 12 lane highway between Puebla, Mexico, and Panama that cuts right through Zapatista lands. The Zapatistas are also pushing for changes to the Indigenous Bill of Rights that the Mexican Government first accepted and then gutted of any social relevance. The Zapatista use of the internet as a voice multiplier and organisational tool since 1994 should be considered one of the most important activist gestures of the ‘90s – many see a direct connection between the Seattle actions and the Zapatista’s call for the development of the International Network of Struggle and Resistance at the start of 1996.

CF: EDT does have another project in the works called ‘Anchor for Witnessing’. How does it expand the purview of online political engagement?

RD: ‘Anchors for Witnessing: Counter-Surveillance for Off-Grid Communities’ is an attempt to take on the issue of surveillance which is now so important, not only as a mechanism of social control, but also as the latest new growth market in the Guarded Society. In 1998, when the media started to ask EDT about what new tactics the Zapatistas were developing, we said that they were constructing ‘wireless video servers (Anchors)’ to upload real-time netcast video of human rights abuses by paramilitary and the Mexican Military. At the time this was just an idea we thought of presenting as an intimidation strategy. Now EDT is making this a reality. These wireless ‘Anchors’ will use the technologies developed by corporate and military communities in the first world to centralise control of indigenous lands. But we will be making them available to those who are usually the targets of surveillance so they can document the abuses that they are regularly subjected to. The speed of transmission helps to prevent governments or other power structures from succeeding in suppressing information.

CF: Unlike other well known hacktivists groups, EDT’s activities have been absorbed by the art world in general and the net.art community in particular. Documentation of your actions has been included in numerous net.art exhibitions and publications, and your work has been presented widely in theatre and performance conferences. Why do you think that your particular blend of HTML détournment and political critique of neo-liberalism has been interpreted as ‘art’?

RD: We consider our project to be an example of radical net.art aesthetics. We see ourselves as artists and theorists. We also felt that our poetics, with its emphasis on simulation, transparency, mass agency and negative casting of the networks allowed a complex social sculpture to emerge that was not part of the self-referential net.art fetish of code qua code. FloodNet established a mode of telepresence that was bound to the conditions of the social beyond the digital domain. Net.art for EDT offers the possibility not only for a human story to become present for many by viewing the artwork, but also for a moment of political solidarity with a distant ‘Other’ to emerge.

CF: In writing about your art in the past, I have stressed its relevance as conceptual sculpture in the tradition of working with negative space, and its connection with a Latin American tradition of infusing minimal strategies with political content.<1> For instance, in the way you convert the net.art game of foregrounding 404 files (a status code which tells you that a requested page was not found) into an indictment of governmental negligence. It is equally important that your work politicises connectivity and interactivity by calling on its users to assume an ethical stance vis-à-vis a distant Other. In this sense, the work undermines what I would call the telematic fantasy of net.culture; that is, the assumption that communicating across vast distances represents a radical gesture in and of itself. ‘Dolores from 10h to 22h’ extends this experiment with another form of simulation (the docu-drama), bringing a human story from the South into the net.art context to focus on the audience’s relationship to viewing the political violence of everyday life in a maquiladora.<2> However, judging from the rather flip interventions in the chat room, it would seem that net.art viewers show their ‘better selves’ more effectively when they are called upon to engage in simulated aggression against an Oedipalised power source (i.e. jamming a server) than when they are asked to reflect upon how their own attraction to net.spectacularity might interfere with their recognition of the grotesque inequities of the global economic order, and that their privileged position can be measured in relation to their voyeuristic pleasure. In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich argues that most successful couplings of simulation and real life action are the screens on fighter planes that assist the pilots engaged in warfare. I would argue that a politicised net.art practice will have to push this relationship more, to stop us from seeing the virtual space of the internet as an absolute representation of reality, the database as the sum total of knowledge and the power of seeing as something to indulge in solely for voyeuristic or narcissistic pleasure.

RD: Yes, I agree that right now aggressive simulation plays better than self-reflection about our relationship to the everyday abuse of workers in the South. Most of the work that falls between net.art and net.activism tends to deal with the injection of the organic as an act of disturbance rather than as act of internal critique – be it Mongrel at the Tate, or EDT, or the Toywar. A project like ‘Dolores’ points to another space that is now emerging.

>> Image Dolores from 10 to 22 hrs, a net performance by Coco Fusco and Ricardo Dominguez, November 2001

CF: How does your extensive background in theatre as an actor and director affect your approach to activism, both on and offline? Does it explain your stress on conceiving of electronic civil disobedience as theatre?

RD: My background in classical theatre, agit-prop theatre and performance art, intermixed with my history of direct action on the streets, my involvement with Critical Art Ensemble, and the powerful theatre of resistance that Zapatismo created, allowed EDT to stage a dramatic sociological event. Our event was bound to a story that lucidly illustrates the social implications of top-down globalisation. EDT was able to create an ‘invisible theatre’ that moved many different individuals and organisations to make visceral responses in the cold space of code. So, my history in the theatre of emotion allowed me to build with the other members of EDT an organic and poetic staging of the unbearable weight of beings saying ‘Ya Basta!’ While EDT stresses that its performance involves a type of electronic civil disobedience, we do not say that it is the only form of electronic civil disobedience. Our gesture staged a simulation of a Distributed Denial of Service – the outcome of mass agency and digital liminality.<3> We move among net.hacking, net.activism, net.performance, net.art, and those who have no net.link at all. The Zapatista FloodNet and the Zapatista Tribal Port Scan are radical aesthetic data gestures that disturb the ontology of the networks without being bound to the networks. These gestures also point to a future form of life where mass mediated communication is not a fallen sphere of consumerism, but a ‘decisive space’, such as the one that Latin American media theorist Martin Barbero writes about, where it may be possible to redefine the social agora and to construct global democracies from the grass roots up.

CF: While it is true EDT was facilitated by the net.art community, that very context of your emergence has shifted radically since 1998. Net.art has become part of the very museum and gallery world that it once saw itself as a reaction against. More and more, the net is used by ‘new media artists’ as a promotional vehicle for the sale of new media objects and/or live performances. The institutionalisation of net.art has also entailed a certain containment of its political dimension. For example, it is documentation of your FloodNet actions that museums request for their online exhibitions, not the enactment of a hacktivist gesture. So far the recognition of hacktivism has not led to more dialogue between artists and museums about how net.art can actively engage in institutional critique from within the museum space. On the contrary, net.art now being showcased by major museums is for the most part techno-formalist and devoid of content, or so abstruse as to be virtually unreadable as political gesture. What would you say is the future of the political within net.art practice in light of how cultural institutions are responding to it?

RD: A great deal has changed in the net.art world since 1997. Many museums are now deeply involved in framing net.art for public consumption. You can certainly see a difference rt that was presented at the Whitney Biennial in 2000, which presented work by rtmark.com and fakeshop.com that was both political and performative. In 2002, the focus is on techno-formalist net.artists who are working very hard to become an objet d’art – and gain a foothold in the market. It is important for those artists working within a critical performative matrix not to be sidetracked by the latest techno-formalist fetish of museums or the gallery system. In the post 9/11 climate, it is more important than ever to push for aesthetic ‘voices’ that can bear witness to other worlds beyond the ideology of the War on Terrorism.

It is not clear whether institutions will take on the task of presenting political net.art beyond simple documentation. This may start to happen if network_art_activism begins to establish stronger ties with the previous generations of artists who have faced the dismantling of the political in art – both in the North and the South – so that this very immature form which is net.art can gain a sense of history about institutional critique, in order to develop both a deeper aesthetic and historical knowledge about what other artists have done before history was erased by the digital hype. I really don’t see the possibility of cultural support for political net.art works like EDT’s Zapatista FloodNet any time soon. But for projects like ‘Anchors for Witnessing’ – yes, there is interest and support. For political art projects that are about distribution – yes, but for projects that ‘disturb’ – no.

CF: So as things now stand institutions want to fund projects that narrow the digital divide, but not ones that subvert the formalist tendencies of net.art from within.

RD: Yes, projects that follow the market drive to plug everyone in, I think, will continue to gain more institutional presence and support. Those works which don’t fold into the other end of the market drive for formalist containment, or the pure presentation of code qua code, machines qua machines, like network_art_activism, will be left in the archives, and will never be supported as a live performance.

CF: You have mentioned several times that in gatherings of hacktivists and anti-globalisation activists many raise the question of how to bring the issues and activities of political artists and activists from the South or the Third World into the foreground more effectively? What do you propose as a means of making this happen?

RD: I don’t know if there is only one way to do this. Each little gesture builds towards a large social effect and we cannot expect one gesture to solve such a deep and intractable problem as the lack of presence of the voices from the South on the networks or in the anti-globalisation movement easily. But, I think we have a much better chance of having the issues and activities of artists from the Third World taken on by hacktivists, net.artists, autonomous networks and the ‘movement’ than we do from most other sectors in the North. As for suggestions for making this crossover happen, well, I think, in the next year you will see important email lists emerge that will attempt to create a more intercontinental understanding about political art and net.art. Lists that will question the institutionalisation of techno-formalism as the only type of net.art of value. Lists that The Thing will host and archive [http://bbs.thing.net]. Also, we will begin to see a deeper critique of the utopian politics on the Right and Left that only define themselves via the computer as a tool for political and cultural liberation. We will see more projects appearing on networks from regions and people that have been pushed Off-Grid for a very long time. For me, the answer right now is to build a hybrid media network that is somewhere between The Thing and Zapatismo – which means pushing forward down the same road I started on. But this time the work will be even more effective, distributed, and disturbing than EDT’s performance ever was – something to be wished for.

Notes:

<1>The experimentation with negative space in western art is fundamental to the elaboration of foreground and background in painting and drawing, and to the development of sculpture that highlights how the space around a designated object defines the object even when that object is absent. This is not that different from our numerical system’s inclusion of the concept of zero, a cypher that represents nothing, and in doing so gives meaning to all other numbers. Gestalt psychology looks at the tendency to perceive form and pattern as figure against background. Constructivist Naum Gabo is usually credited with being the first sculptor to concentrate on negative space, having used voids to define shape with his Head No. 2 (1916). Modernist Michael Heizer with his earthworks consisting of gouged trenches and postmodernist Rachel Whiteread with her casting of negative spaces such as the inside of bathtubs and rooms, and the spaces under chairs, are among the better known artists working in this vein. See, Fusco, Coco, ‘The Unbearable Weightiness of Beings: Art in Mexico after NAFTA,’ in The Bodies That Were Not Ours and Other Writings, (London: Routledge and inIVA, 2001), pp. 186-201.

<2>Originally an Arabic term that entered colonial Mexico via Spain to signify the processing of foreign grains. It now refers to assembly plants to which foreign materials and parts are shipped and from which the finished product is returned to the original market. Those plants are located in free trade zones in Mexico and the Caribbean.

<3>On the Internet, a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) takes place when a system attacks a single target by overloading it with an automated repetition of a message. This action jams the server and causes denial of service for users of the targeted system. FloodNet on the other hand enabled a multiplicity of users to overload a system via the simultaneous, automated sending of messages from a range of sites. While DDoS does not require mass participation for effect, FloodNet acquires its force through collective engagement.

Coco Fusco <tongolele AT aol.com> is an artist and the author of The Bodies That Were Not Ours and Other Writings and English Is Broken Here: Notes on cultural Fusion in the Americas. She is Director of Graduate Study for the Visual Arts Program at Columbia University's School of Arts in New York

Ricardo Dominguez <rdom666 AT yahoo.com>

For coverage of ‘Dolores from 10h to 22h’ [http://www.metamute.com/events/dolores.htm]FloodNet[http://www.thing.net/~rdom/ecd/floodnet.html]Electronic Disturbance Theatre [http://www.thing.net/~rdom/ecd/ecd.html]

Anthology: 
Proud to be Flesh

Bill Posters is Guilty (On the cultural logic of ambient)

The concept of ambient has come a long way since Brian Eno’s Music for Airports in 1978. With its successful seepage into the world of art and advertising, its ubiquity has resulted in it becoming a fully-grown cultural logic in its own right. As advertisements now appear everywhere, from bus tickets through to toilet viewrinals, Neil Mulholland takes us on a tour of the latest developments in ambient brandalism, ambicommerce and jambient forms of culture jamming

As a cultural practice, ‘ambient’ has long been associated with the music of Eric Satie, Claude Debussy, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage and Holger Czukay. This line of association owes much to Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music For Airports (1978), music that invites both active and passive consumption. Eno’s ambient has been the raison d’être of numerous disciples, such as Air and Boards of Canada, producers of music aided and abetted by the crystalline uninterrupted play of Compact Disk. This canon of ambient music has been documented in numerous books, notably Mark Prendergast’s The Ambient Century (2000) and David Toop’s Ocean Of Sound (2001). Although these particular histories are significant, by clutching on to music, they miss out on wider definitions and articulations of ambient. By the end of the nineties, ambient wasn’t simply a record shop genre, it didn’t necessarily share the Zen ancestry of neo-dada, or the ethereal calm of Eno’s wallpaper music, or the hard-headed structure of music concrete; in some cases it wasn’t even audible. In the nineties the meanings of ambient were radically transformed and contested in numerous ways. Ambient became as viral and ubiquitous as ambience, no longer merely a cultural strategy, but a prevalent cultural logic.

 

In some spheres, ambient seemed to be (and predominantly remains) synonymous with the increasing popularity of ecology movements and ‘alternative’ non-Western thought in the rich post-industrial West. The ethnographic, transcultural world beat music of eighties acts such as Talking Heads and Dead Can Dance sanctioned numerous global trance records in the nineties. These ranged from the cult tranceuroxpress fashioned by Norway’s Biosphere, to the popular Baka chants and African rhymes mixed by France’s Deep Forest. Everyone from The Orb to the Art of Noise sampled and suckled on global beat. Global beat was a musical ideology that allowed ‘nature’ to be appropriated and reconstructed as a mirror of and for ‘culture’ with immeasurably varied levels of sophistication. Non-music, or ambient noise such as whale and forest sounds, was curiously juxtaposed with classical and world-musics, principally Gregorian, Celtic, African and Bulgarian song. In the hands of primitivist acts such as Enya, all samples became ambient in the sense that they could be commercially ascribed to fashionable neo-colonial and psycho-theological notions of the vernacular, the pastoral and the Edenic. As a vague audio representation of the global eco-politics, ambient music gained an authoritative hold amongst anyone who wanted to buy into New Age. Ambient was a polite, well-dressed native who might go unnoticed. It was therapeutic, domesticated and at peace with its surroundings, and hence a favourite of anyone who wanted to present themselves as ‘political, but not in a barricades sense.’ Ambient, in this sense, was a representation of politics, the simultaneous manifestation and exploitation of a burgeoning green economic sector. It was made for the nineties, a decade when people increasingly expressed their political beliefs through what they consumed while concurrently being uncomfortable with consumerism.

As a form of politics by osmosis, ambient offered a paradoxical solution to this dilemma, the solution being a denial of closure. At its best, this was manifested in the infinite run-on groove of Aphex Twin’s We Are the Music Makers (1991) and the concrete pastoralism of his Richard D. James Album (1996). However, since it produced few memorable commercial singles, the legacy of ambient primitivism tended to be a futile search for the sublime, a road to nowhere that can never be exhausted by the market. The evocation of the authority of nature found in lacklustre nineties chill-out techno eternally reverberates in today’s TV ads for nostalgic ambient CD compilations (and ubiquitous organic products). Nocturnal nineties westerners sought supplementary ‘nature’, but they wanted it in the right place at the right time, preferably electronically generated in the back room of a sweaty industrial club. Now they can bung it on the Bang & Olufsen and align chakras at home. This is befitting of the duplicitous and incongruous politics of the rave movement in the early nineties. Deeply narcissistic yet supposedly eco-friendly, demanding, like a sub fusc situationist, the right to party before the right to work, the passive nihilism of ambient techno is one source of our current ambient polity.

In the nineties, this particular brand of ambient practice coexisted with more comprehensive critiques of the environment that drew on rearticulations of spatial and temporal meaning found in postmodern critical social theory, anthropology and geography. These critiques drew attention to the ways in which environments are engendered, empowered and contested by subtle and palpable means. The intimacies of postmodern geographies explored by figures such as Marc Augé, Anthony Vidler, Doreen Massey and Edward Soja built on earlier ambient texts such as Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space (1969), Robert Harbison’s Eccentric Spaces (1977) and Jacques Attali’s Noise: the Political Economy of Music (1977). Augé’s Non-Places: An Introduction to the Anthropology of Supermodernity (1990), quickly became the Music for Airports of the nineties. The main stumbling block for nineties artists concerned with intangible social spaces, sonic flyposting and geo-political contexts seems to be that too much capital was made in the eighties of the ambient arena of social theory by the neo-avant-garde, artists who had culturally bowdlerised and exemplified postmodernisms to death. Artists such as Barbara Kruger and Krzysztof Wodiczko had carefully fostered ethical engagement with the built environment, considering the city as a stage and script. Nevertheless, such artists lacked an important element of the nineties ambient aesthetic; morphologically, they tended to bellow rather than emphasise the timbrel virtues of the voice. Their well-manicured, big-budget, spectacular, political art retained fewer supporters in the nineties, when situationist writings found new audiences. Nineties artists could not naïvely seek to recover situationist metaphysics, nor did they wish to be regarded as the inheritors of the ‘genuine’ political avant-garde, rather they sought provisional respite from critical postmodernism’s epistemological hole (the liar’s paradox) and its exasperating moral courteousness.

Nineties artists re-examined ambient critiques of spatial temporality, remodelling maps and re-exploring ‘alternative’ psychologies of space from a perspective that was politically detached yet aesthetically absorbed by late avant-garde tactics. The situationist industry of the later nineties belatedly academicised and commercialised the anticipation and zeal that accompanied the rediscovery of (well-worn) counter-cultural tactics practiced by hooligan politicos in the late sixties and early seventies. Nevertheless, for a short time, replicating these strategies again as style had its benefits, chiefly helping to mitigate (rather than repudiate) the stifling theoretical injunctions of critical postmodernism in favour of more playful and subtle approaches focussed towards non-specialist audiences. Artist Shepard Fairey, who began his viral Obey Giant propaganda in Rhode Island in 1989 as ‘an experiment in phenomenology’, now has volunteer operatives bombing around the globe, manufacturing dissent by generating desire for a product (the late wrestler Andre the Giant) that does not exist. In Glasgow during 1990, such ambient approaches were particularly attractive to artists such as Ross Sinclair, David Shrigley and Jonathan Monk who spent that year re-narrating the city as an architectural uncanny, detourning posters (Monk’s Cancelled) and transforming derelict public toilets into bars (Shrigley’s The Ship). Given that it was produced during an economic recession, this ambiart had to differ from that produced by artists such as Kruger and Wodiczko; it was very cheap, simple (much of it was spontaneous), and effective (it spread by word of mouth). Crucially, given its lack of closure, such work was, like the run-on grooves of ambient techno, ethically nonchalant. At that cultural moment, it did not matter if artists produced such stunts; nor did it matter if anyone ever saw them, they were whispering campaigns with nothing to promote and nothing to lose. Unlike later ambient practices by contemporaries – such as Adam Chodzko’s God Look Alike Contest (1992-3) and Mark Wallinger A Real Work of Art (1994) – this group of artists received no official artworld acclaim for their quintessentially timbrel poeticisation of space.

In the nineties, postmodernist ideas of interrupting the equilibrium and continuity of temporal space by exploring ambient strategies were gradually disassociated from their traditional strongholds of academia, architecture and art. This gave certain sectors of ambient a renewed sense of energy and vigour and the political determination for action. Ambient politics were most tenaciously evident in the culture jamming of pop bands such as the Kopyright Liberation Front and Negativland, groups who did see themselves as inheritors of post-situationist avant-gardism. KLF’s White Room (1991) exploited the demand for chill out primitivist ambience to fund their inimitable anti-art agenda – a vitalising blend of hacking, pranks, plagiarism, disinformation, forgeries, nonsense, poetic terrorism, psuedoscience and sabotage. Internationally, self-trained culture jammers were quick to embrace virtual spaces and new media as globalised level playing fields. Nevertheless, much jambient took place in the built environment as witty direct actions, and frequently exhibited ecological concerns. Vancouver Sodders, for example, rented out busy city car parking spaces for sunbathing on deckchairs.

In the nineties, billboard liberation projects, popular since the late seventies, were corporatised by organisations such as Adbusters, who attempted to bankroll dissent. Conceptually and economically, Adbusters’s glossy anti-corporate corporate strategy was perfect for the nineties in the way that it presented opposition as both legitimate and aspirational. Many of its campaigns focused on global corporations that produce unhealthy products such as fast food, tobacco and alcohol (Absolute Nonsense) or had bad employment rights records. Subvertisements such as Buy Nothing Day and Turn off TV were sanctimonious enough to appeal to the paternalism of liberal and puritan Americans alike, providing a privately financed simulacral welfare state. Fighting fire with fire (a tactic exhausted by pop situationists such as Malcolm McLaren in the early eighties), Adbusters embodied the oxymoronic politics of ambient as much as Benneton’s Colors magazine or Naomi Klein’s No Logo: instrumentalist charity remixed.

The avant-garde ambientertainment pioneered by groups such as the KLF, meanwhile, gained momentum among media terrorists such as Chris Morris who took jamming to mass audiences in the UK with self-reflexive TV news spoofs The Day Today (1994) and Brass Eye (1997). Morris satirised the consequentialism of nineties anti-corporate corporatism by fusing the concerns of ambient music and guerrilla politics to the point where both collapsed into style. The Animals episode of Brass Eye negated nineties negation, giving the animal rights movement (or rather its representations) the same treatment as third-rate celebrities and lacklustre politicians. Morris’s return to radio to produce the Radio One programme Blue Jam (1998-99) marked a fitting epitaph to the decade. The programme impeccably travestied the ambient musical genre, mixing smooth jazz loops, ambient groove, trance, trip-hop, drum ‘n’ bass, rock, techno, pop, dub and funk – overlaying them with the avant-argots of a dark comic mind.

By the mid-nineties, ambient was big business in both political and leisure terms. As business clients became increasingly worried about cost effectiveness during the economic recession of the early nineties, the latter half of the decade saw ambient forms of jamming become increasingly common in European advertising, mirroring the impact of the recession on artists working in the built environment. In Britain, ambient advertising, a fledgling sector in 1995 worth £10 million, is expected to be worth £110million by the end of 2002. Ambient strategies have varied enormously, ranging from guerrilla marketing stunts, viral e-mails and fly posting to targeted text messaging. Environmental art has been heavily sourced by guerrilla stunt-driven outfits such as Cunning Stunts, who famously projected naked TV presenter Gail Porter on to Westminster to publicise men’s magazine FHM. The Independent followed, creating its own news by projecting ‘To Let’ onto Parliament during the 1997 general election. Wodiczko’s favoured form of intervention has long been used by cultural jammers such as comedian Mark Thomas (who projected 007 onto the MI6 building in London). Due to the popularity of this tactic amongst ambient advertisers, this has since been made an offence (but commercial pranksters simply add the fines to their fees). Glocal community action has been exploited and parodied by groups such as Diabolical Liberties, who last year were responsible for the viral ‘Save Our Local Takeaways’ campaign fronted by former World’s Strongest Man, Geoff Capes. Numerous chippies and kebab houses as well as BBC Radio 4, Loaded, and the local press were scammed into promoting Snack Stop instant noodles, a new product from powdered baby milk connoisseurs Nestlé. Jamming-style ad pranksters seek radical chic to attract further publicity; no product is taboo, no space secure from reification. This March, Acclaim Entertainment promoted the launch of Shadowman 2, on PlayStation2, by inviting bereaved relatives to allow ad placements on relatives’ gravestones.

Towards the end of the nineties, commercials appeared practically everywhere, from gas silos and shaved heads to shroud wraps on scaffolding. Public spaces were highly sought after by ambient media groups who maintained the sites and sold site-specific solutions to their growing list of clients. In Britain, spaces were practically monopolised on petrol pumps (Alvern Forecourt Media), on sandwich bags and take-away containers (Bag Media), on over 10 billion ticket bus and train tickets (Ticketmedia and Madmedia’s Radion scented bus tickets), toilets (CPA Washroom Advertising and Captive View’s sensor equipped ‘Viewrinals’), changing rooms (Fitting Exposure), free postcards (Boomerang Media), phone boxes (Phonesites), Vespas (SkootMedia), shopping trolleys (The Media Vehicle), milk bottles (Milk Media), the bottom of beer glasses (PintAds), dining tables (Tablemedia), park benches (Benchmark), the floors of car parks and train stations (Face-IT Media) and on plasma screens installed inside buses (Media Initiatives). Such ambient marketing sought to circumvent the brand-saturated world by targeting increasingly fragmented audiences directly. In the UK, In Your Space placed airline adverts on trucks travelling along congested motorways, and FCA wrote ads for holidays in Wales into the grime of white vans stuck in London commuter traffic. Captive and gender specific spaces such as toilets, changing rooms and bars particularly appealed to clients interested in targeting customers when they are most susceptible to suggestion, such as when they are already consuming or when they’re drunk. Science fiction currently plays a key role, with many ambicommerce strategists pre-empting dystopian fictions such as Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. Blade Runneresque images can be projected into the air by a 3D imager developed by the Media Vehicle. Borrowing an idea from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Metrocom are currently preparing to run commercials inside dark London Underground tunnels, mounting light boxes onto the tunnel wall to produce flick-book style moving pictures. The resources available to such organisations outstrip those available to the growing numbers seeking to reclaim public space from private hands. The will to regain the public canvas from ambient interlopers is not supported by the Third Way; rather it is actively discouraged by PPP schemes. Politically, economically and organisationally, ambicommerce is seeking to gain the upper hand. To increase their list of blue-chip clients and to fend off growing complaints from the Advertising Standards Authority, four British companies within the sector have sought to regulate themselves, breaking from the Outdoor Advertising Association to form The Out of Home Media Association in May. A common code of practice for the ambient industry will not restrain rebel ambient companies who know that cheap, inventive guerrilla marketing will always be desirable. Ambient brandalism may be the new spam that jammers seek to police, but ambient creatives are well aware of the opposition’s tactics, since what they practice is a logical outcome of edit culture and its critique. In addition to financial restraints, the ambient commercial proliferation opposed by jammers was spawned by an astute awareness of space created by young graduates’ knowledge of postmodern geographies and semiotic critiques of advertising. Semiotic Solutions’ disdain for market research in favour of semiotic analysis seems to confirm that ambient is a cultural Möbius strip. Ambient is lean-burning and sustainable; it will expand exponentially with its own critique.

Neil Mulholland <n.mulholland AT eca.ac.uk> is Lecturer in Contemporary Art at the Centre for Visual & Cultural Studies, Edinburgh College of Art

Anthology: 
Proud to be Flesh

Countdown to Zero, Count up to Now (An interview with the Artist Placement Group)

We hear a lot about the disappearance of the public sphere these days. We also hear a lot about a group of 1960s conceptualists called the Artist Placement Group, who brokered some of the earliest artists’ residencies in industry and government in the UK. In 1966, when APG was founded, the art world regarded ‘tangling with the dirt’ of commerce and the public sector as an anomaly, even an aberration within art. Today, on the other hand, such tangling has come to define large swathes of artistic practice. Operating with few precedents, APG worked hard to formulate a rigorous methodology of engagement – one that makes many of today’s ubiquitous residencies appear complacent, and complicit, by comparison. With art having long since burst its disciplinary banks, APG’s early excursions outside the white cube’s perimeter also shed light on the emerging hybrid landscape of business art, art & science, socially engaged art and even network art. This summer, Josephine Berry and Pauline van Mourik Broekman talked to APG co-founders Barbara Steveni and John Latham, both artists in their own right, and discovered their sometimes quite different approaches to the organisation and its implications

Key:JB > Josephine BerryJL > John LathamBS > Barbara SteveniPB > Pauline van Mourik Broekman

 

JB: Could you describe the cultural context in which APG and its thinking came about?

JL: It’s a quite complicated beginning. I was teaching in St. Martins and Barbara came up with this idea: why don’t we go into the factories? These were no-go areas at that moment – and I think she had contact with the Fluxus group. There were high tensions in the art world about having anything to do with organisations of the industrial-commercial kind. They wanted to use art as something prestigious.

BS: Might I come in there? John was in America just at the time, and the Fluxus group came to stay in our house and they were going to do an exhibition in, I think it was called Gallery One – they wanted some material. And I said, I’ll go to the outer circular road, to the industrial estate, and I’ll pick up some material. So I went there, and I got lost in the industrial estate, and it was dead of night, but the factory was absolutely booming away and I thought: well why aren’t we here? Not to pick up buckets of plastic, but because there’s a whole life that we don’t touch. This is what people go on about – academics, artists, politicians – but they go nowhere near it. That was where the idea got born, and when John came back I told him about it.

At that time, artist types like Stuart and Deborah Brisley, John, myself and others, were doing events and happenings in the street – like Peter Kuttner’s Nodnol Lives. Very much out of the gallery and into the street. Looking at a reaction against the object and its value for the market – so that was the sort of context out of which it came. As John was saying, the whole idea of fine artists having anything to do with commerce and stuff was, like, real dirty. But the idea of context, ‘Context is Half the Work’ which John coined, developed into a main APG/O+I axiom [APG became Organisation and Imagaination (O+I) in 1989] through to today, developed as a result of making approaches to industry.

JB: Were you interested in Russian Constructivism as an example of artists going into industrial situations and contexts. Was that known about in London at that time?

BS: It was known about, and especially John was much more into art history. I was into life experience. In fact I had no schooling.

JL: At that time, I was oblivious of art history. I just did what I’d been touched off by as an art experience. It was like seeing something so intensely moving that I had to understand it. And I didn’t bother about the art history. When people talked about Picasso I said, well who’s he?

BS: And I became very interested, when going into the factories, in the social role of the people, the individuals in there, and how they were connecting up to what they were doing. And what was it that the organisation was doing that they were in. And all that developed out of a real interest and questioning which I guess now would be called research. I think they thought I was a sociologist since I’d remarked at British Leyland, for example, on the fact that women worked only in the trimming shops, but they couldn’t be found in other parts of the factory. So my interest was in the role and the purpose of individuals, and their relation to the wider unit beyond, and John’s was what the language was doing.

JB: Was meshing your quite different sensibilities around APG a fairly natural progression? You’re saying that you had this more hands-on sociological approach and John was interested in, you might say, more esoteric areas of physics and language.

JL: I want to answer that one. I was a brush painter, gone into what it was I’d been hit by. As a brush painter, it was a completely irrelevant thing to do to think about having anything to do with anything else really. It was a closed little research establishment to put it in a friendly way – or a waste of time, to put it in another. But I met two scientists, C.C.L. Gregory and Anita Kohsen, who were crossing their disciplines, and who were very dedicated to finding what the difference was between physical and human animal behaviour. Now they’d gone into partnership and we got an introduction to meet them because they lived in the neighbourhood and, as time went on, they suddenly paid a visit, and the professor of astronomy said: Would you like to do a mural for a party we’re giving on Halloween night? Now I’ve told this story before, but the long and the short of it is that I discovered that a spray gun is a very meaningful instrument for getting over what had happened in painting – which was a countdown to zero. A countdown to zero starts from complete confidence in spatial appearances and in the skill that you’ve got in the mid 19th century, say with Delacroix, to a complete rejection of the idea that the spatial appearance of the world is anything but an illusion. That life is an illusion. And it was emphasised by the discoveries from Max Planck in 1900, who came up with the idea of the discrete bit, that everything was made up of discrete events basically. And you don’t find an interval between the discrete events. And this was very important because scientists can’t talk about event structure. Physicists refer to waves and particles in space-time.

PB: And how did this relate to the spray gun?

JL: This is accounting for it after the event. There had been a blank unmarked canvas exhibited as a work and what that meant was that all art is on a par with no action. That was a very high powered, challenging statement.

JB: Was that Rauschenberg?

JL: Yes. Well, he worked a lot with Cage, and Cage may have been responsible for the idea in the beginning – a zero sound concert – the same kind of thing. But what was important was the blank white board, and taking the spray gun to register a history on it with discrete marks of an accretive process that had permanence. Once a point mark has gone down, it doesn’t disappear. And an inference that I drew later on was that this is an insistently recurrent event that makes it seem permanent. And an insistently recurrent event is like a quantum unit of light, it doesn’t have an interval between its discrete bits. I think you’ll come to see that this is very important: what we regard as time is counting. Counting via caesium atoms, clocks, days, years. And very high frequencies in the Planck world give us new techniques. It goes down to something really beyond what we can either repeat or imagine. An initial Insistently Recurrent Event (IRE) is an oscillation between nothing – the blank canvas – and a point mark, and it translates as a proto-event universe.

JB: If you extrapolate from that, does that oscillation suggest the ever present and explosive possibility of transformation? If reality has to reaffirm itself in this insistently recurrent way, is that an instability?

JL: The most logical series is what I’m really talking about. What we have to do is get past this idea of the Big Bang having started out of nothing. Physics has come to a point where it’s very practical. You can find out what happens with most things. But it’s got a problem, which Stephen Hawking refers to about once every ten years. And that is an admission that – and he said it in so many words – we don’t know where to begin. At one time it was, ‘if we haven’t solved it by the end of century we won’t know where to begin.’ And at the end of the century he said on CNN: ‘let the twenty years start now.’ It was the admission that it’s too big a problem and we don’t know where to begin.

Well, the arts had proposed not that the world starts with a bang but that it starts from a prehistory of an event structure which has a non-extended starting line, equivalent to the score in music, that’s to say, not heard as sound. A non-extended state doesn’t show up in physics, it’s not allowed. What you do find though, and one of the ideas that compensates for it is called a vacuum. Now vacuum is a spatial word, you can’t have vacuum in no space, or it’s a nonsense to talk about it. But they can talk about it happily because there’s a quantum vacuum which means the non-space in between the two extended states which form the positive side of the wave. The vacuum is a state nought – very easy to translate into artists terms. If you go into the structure of a concert you experience a clock time duration; a thing starts with a waving of a stick, say, and ends with another waving of a stick. This is in ‘count’ time, say in the minutes between the start and the finish. The performance is an ordering of time-bases or frequencies, rhythms, and pause lengths. With the score aspect of time these make up the three components of three dimensional time, which now constitute the dynamics of a musical performance. So there you’ve got a score which is timeless apparently, but it has such control over what goes on in time that you have an equivalent there for an atemporal, omnipresent coding. It’s not a coding so much as a matrix of previous experience.

JB: Is that the Least Event for you?

JL: Can I say yes? The Least Event in music, you could understand as somebody recognising that a sound was interesting and feeling the do-it-again impulse. The do-it-again impulse is equivalent to saying insistently recurrent. Those two ideas belong together, because what then happens is we’ll do it again and then we’ll do it differently. And if you can think of a proto-event, a universe in a state where there isn’t anything, a total zero extension in space and time, if you can imagine that series in a non-extended context, and it then becomes a habit within that non-extended state, you find that there are performances which are enactments from a score which grow in complexity all the time.

Well, the event-structured world is what the artist naturally works in. We work in it, deriding all the common sense objections and adulations and all the blah-blahs that come in from the outside and which are totally irrelevant to what goes on that’s exciting to do, say, on a wall. It’s that interest, that kind of impulse which is important because it reveals the actual universe to people who are totally blown by the fact that, to quote Stephen Hawking, we don’t know where to begin. They all seem to know what they ought to do next because they have a medium for how to exchange value. And it’s flawed just the same as the verbal medium.

JB: You mean money?

JL: Language and money together.

PB: Sticking with the cultural context of the ‘60s, if you were engaged with this critique of objects and their role as vehicles of value in the art system, how did your critique of language relate to the fact that a lot of other artists were precisely using language as an agent of dematerialisation, as a questioning, philosophical method – all of which they thought could challenge the same system of value, objects and spatial relations?

JL: I think what was intensely interesting in the history of ideas is that people always thought in a dualistic way. They’ve always thought that things are things, but we are not things. We are inhabited by mysterious forces. The most recent quotee is Descartes, who set philosophy on the course of two worlds. There came a point in the early 20th century, in Cambridge, where you found Bertrand Russell cooperating in mathematical philosophy. And he got a communication from Vienna, from Wittgenstein, who as a young punter had said: how about this, is this any use, or is it total nonsense? And Russell wrote back and said: no it’s wonderful, come over and talk to us about it. And the nugget of what Wittgenstein was on about was that they would talk through and discover an atomic proposition or perhaps a set of atomic propositions which are basic and indestructible.

JB: For language you mean?

JL: For language and logic. It’s an attempt to systematise language logic. If we actually go into what then happened – 1912 I think was the initial date in a period where the idea of the Tractatus was being written. He argued the case of the atomic propositions and it got published at the end of the World War One. Wittgenstein had to go and fight in the Austrian army. He then returned to Cambridge and found that he didn’t get on with anybody except the economist Keynes. That was his last sort of friend there, and he disappeared to Norway and places. He was thoroughly frustrated when things didn’t work for the atomic propositions.

Well, 1951 is the date that I quote anyway, of the Cage and Rauschenberg zero action works. It’s also the date of the posthumous publication of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations which says, at the beginning, that the idea of the atomic propositions must have been mistaken. I’ll now go over the bits and bits, sorting out what we mean by and what are useful types of expression. And he’s famous for the second. But he’s famous for starting a movement in philosophy which then went into its opposite, into reverse. He was the trigger for a big effort to get, even with what physics had found out, at the indestructible basic unit which is still not there. It wasn’t identified. We’re still looking for a particle, still spending billions of pounds in crashing one particle against another in these circuits, looking for an initiating particle or state.

Well, the point for us is that if you think in terms of event, you don’t go into all that language and all those heavy equations about the behaviour of matter because we’ve found forms for visualising the event structure. It’s represented on the back of my Time-Base Roller as a memory, like a piece of music, which has got all music behind it so it can go as far back as a proto-Universe. Whereas one bit of an extended state has neither location nor interval. Two Least extended states together set up what we call time, the initial kind of extendedness. We then go to scientific people and they tend to say, well you’ve got to actually describe what space is, and we talked to someone who was interested in the idea and he said, well you’ve got to account for space somehow. And I had this argument out with David Park, a professor of astronomy or astrophysics. Anyway he was in the Williamstown USA Observatory. He had written a paper called ‘Are Space and Time Necessary?’ and it turned up mysteriously on my desk and I was amazed, so I read it. And ‘necessary’ meant, in a philosophical sense, do we need to talk about them, are they structural?

JB: Good question.

JL: I wrote to him saying, I’ve got this paper of yours and I’m sending you a photograph of the Roller that had been in the Tate. The Tate hadn’t bought it, but it got shown and photographed, so I could send him a good photograph. He wrote back saying this is really extraordinary, I had no idea that an artist might be interested in what we’re interested in. And a certain amount of dialogue came about and I said “why is it that you physicists don’t regard the event as parent of the particle?” The answer I got was: “in principle you’re probably right, but in all our equations we have gravity, gravity occurs in all our mathematics, and we can’t get gravity into events.” Now in my forms, gravity shows up as the ‘coming to an end’ of a score being played out. The internal dynamic on the gravity scale is that all events tend to coincide at a zero or dimensionless point. In General Relativity, density of matter in space finally translates from zero space, zero time, infinite temperature into an infinitely rich score somewhere, like in a drawer.

JB: Could we make a transition to art more directly? You say that the ’50s was a zero point in art – a kind of compression of all of art history into a non-gesture. I’m interested in how you see the conceptual artists’ interest in language, a decade on from that point, in which they were trying to escape from the finality of the object. Was that a zero point in itself?

JL: Short answer is, no.

JB: Why not?

JL: The date of the spray gun paintings might have coincided with a lot of other activity. Obviously it did. See the difference is between a mark that goes across the surface and one which hits it vertically as a point. The point mark is an extension of the zero action works, and blows in a new question as to nature’s tabula rasa, a non-extended state as active where the received idea is that any ‘nothing’ state has to be passive. Newton’s claim ‘ex nihilo nihil fit’ is flawed. The answer to your question is that the zero point is not just neutrally zero in meaning. It is that a non-extended but omnipresent score is inherited from long generations of this universe and begins from an active component in the zero which corresponds to many parts of the culture including both sciences and faiths.

For me personally, conceptual artists and their language-based solutions were chasing the wrong hare. And the real one was the problem that Wittgenstein had come across, and that philosophy had come across – that language was a flawed medium. It didn’t do what it set out to do in the most serious instances. So what had been known for all the previous centuries, the belief systems and sacred texts which had come out from the prophets – had all recognised not to try and be logical; take it from the inspired source.

JB: How did these ideas connect to your preoccupation with artists doing placements, and an engagement particularly with the state and industry? And why were you led to engage with the establishment as a means of siting art in a more socially engaged context, rather than creating something like an alternative space of action?

BS: I think that it was very exciting to come across contexts – I’m answering this instinctively now – which were very heavily peopled and very full with material, with ongoing processes and unfamiliar activities. A context which had great extensions out and which seemed to be touching possibilities which artists were only trivially touching before. They were very conditioned by, say, promotional desires like Pirelli’s desk diaries, etc. The idea that there might be another role within these contexts which obviously have a vast influence on our lives made it seem intriguing in juxtaposition with the way we were coming out of the gallery, and those types of things. Also the media at the time was expanding into new forms – sculpture became inflatable, video was coming up, film and performance. So it seemed like a heavily interesting context to engage with, and the idea that one might change what the engagement would be in those contexts and could then filter through into the society differently, was instinctively felt at the time as being a very exciting thing to do. Where else might one go? Didn’t think so much of setting up an alternative. That wasn’t nearly so interesting as what one had stumbled into, this was an alternative. And the possibility that one could stumble into it, and that one could actually have some effect, change things – in both directions – sounds so hideously idealistic ... It’s a bit like, ‘you can never change anybody, least of all your parents.’

JB: But it felt at the time that there was leeway for change?

BS: Yes, absolutely. When we had our first presentation as APG, the Industrial Negative Symposium which brought artists and industrialists together for the first time, down at the Mermaid Theatre, and the Event Structure Research Group, Jeffrey Shaw, one of APG’s founding artists, and Theo Botschuiver came over from Holland, Billy Klüver (really shocking speaker) – anyway, it had a lot of press. I remember the speaker from Esso petroleum saying, I’m glad to see that APG is not asking for support, but to make a contribution. And at another point Gustav Metzger got up and said I want to burn down your factories and the British Oxygen guy walking out….

I do feel that we were virtually responsible for opening up these ‘new horizons’, or this can of worms that led to all this institutionalisation, both by government departments and corporations, of how the artist might be used, in inverted commas. It was the highjack of what we did as artists by the Arts Council that made it a can of worms. At that time, the context was very exciting and shifting for both sides. It was only by doing the industrial placements that we began to find out how art activity, or how as artists, an optimum association might be developed which complied with making an artwork in these contexts – so that both sides were getting something out of it. So after the industrial placements, which were seen as kind of terrible by the majority of the art world, for tangling with this ‘dirt’ so to speak – I was personally, and artists that we worked with, able to find out just what sort of exchange and engagement could be had in these situations. What we discovered was that we have to take great care to preserve the integrity of art’s motivation vis-à-vis the commercial and political interests around. That’s what the Incidental Person or artist’s presence is there to contend with and to insist on. But I think it might have opened up a can or worms which is taking it in this institutionalised direction now.

PB: But don’t you think this can of worms was the precise same thing that gave you a sense of excitement? Was that engagement with what you call more ‘peopled’ environments to do with their magnitude, their existing power? Did you think that if you intervened in these places, you could adopt their existing power rather than seeking it in alternative communities?

BS: Well yes! I realise that this is a very hot question, and it demands a very hot answer. I know this question is leveled all the time, and it’s a main focus for me right now in today’s global ‘money-worshipping societies’ and I don’t have an immediate sound bite.

JL: The difference between the industrial and the government department placements was where the interests lay. If the artists went into the sectional interests, the establishment, they were walking into a fireball. The chances are that it would make more trouble. But the non-sectional interests that a government department has are different; certainly in Britain, the civil service is supposed to be serving the people. It is an institutionalised body that tries to get the elected government to do certain things, but it’s always seeking more info from our side. When we got to the civil service, we were under investigation by the research department, Whitehall’s research station.

BS: I slightly disagree with what John said about industry, because I was seeing it – as I think were the artists who we were working with – as an engagement we had with individuals and a very important learning process; an exchange with large chunks of society that we’d had no engagement with. I still think of it as a conglomerate of individuals whose activities were impacting on society. And I think a lot was learnt about exchange and stuff. And yes, we went to government, which appeared to have less sectional interests at the time. In the language of today they were also trying to manage change. At the time the thinking might have been, we’ve got to have these outsiders in here to think differently. We were the outsiders.

JB: Do you think that an understanding of an organisation as a conglomeration of individuals and activities made you also believe that if you could influence key individuals you could influence an entire system in a certain way?

BS: I think that was rather a naïve motivation, but it did feel that that was happening. Especially when the guy from ICI left and became, as he put it, ‘APG’s first drop-out’ from the company. It brought up the whole question of success and failure again – for whom, the organisation, society, the artist? It was to do with the fact that here was a context previously untouched by the art process which appeared now to change – a shift in the mindset perhaps – however naïve it was. I still think that you do have to engage with all the forces that are powerful, in different ways, and that one is also powerful as an individual, that ideas are powerful. You had to get your hands dirty, and I still think you have to get your hands dirty. I think it’s about responsibility.

JB: So what do you think about class interests and solidarity then? How does an individual artist go into an industrial situation in which you have class conflict, a conflict of power between workers and capitalists, between workers and management, and operate between those two ‘groups’?

BS: Well, very delicately, and ready to be spat out on all occasions. And that was one of the things that we tried to set up. How far could one go without being spat out? And again what would be a relevant activity. What is coming up enormously now, is the question of ‘socially engaged art’. What the hell is that? And how is the aesthetic talking, the actual power of the aesthetic, or the power of the process of engagement. This is being found out and demonstrated through the whole explosion of ‘artists in residence’ that is coming out of our ears now. But I haven’t quite answered your class thing. I had a personal thing which was that – although I was obviously a nice middle class girl and everything – not going to school, I didn’t have an identification like that. They were all people to me and I automatically asked the question at all moments. I was responsible for being me.

PB: Do you mean that not having had an education you didn’t feel socially situated in a way?

BS: Yes, certainly, I’ve never felt socially situated. Because I wasn’t brought up by my parents. I didn’t go to school. Anyhow, APG and I have been very heavily attacked for going in there very naively, and not thinking, not dealing with class. But the point is that I think that artists have a responsibility to the impact of their insights when in these various engagements – as did APG input.

PB: Why was the self-consistency of APG’s identity, one might say the preservation of its unique identity, so important to effecting the wider aim of transforming the social role of the artist?

BS: Part of maintaining the uniqueness of APG/O+I is, perhaps the opaqueness of its terminology, for instance the ‘Incidental Person’. The Incidental Person was a useful way of describing a new socially engaged artist, or a new socially engaged role for a person that has come from the art trajectory, that John dreamed up to distinguish it from the word ‘artist’ that we had to get away from because of all its baggage. (Incidentally, for the Industrial Negative Symposium, Stuart and John jointly wrote a paper on the disappearance of the artist). So, I feel that in relation to your question about uniqueness, that terminology was very useful to begin to define a new role which had come out of first working in industry and then government. The term was linked to the methodology we tried to develop in order to gain the maximum possibilities for exchange and development and new ideas. You also asked whether our idea could to be taken on by anybody else. Yes, certainly – using the Incidental Person was and is a good way of identifying a change of role for the artist. So I guess the term stands historically along with its method of engagement for those with the understanding to ‘use’ it.

JL: It is important to note that you could actually tangle with the money. The Incidental Person, and O+I’s possessiveness has to do with the responsibility one has to host bodies. Supposing that we got to the Department of Education or whatever, if we gave them something really hot and they took it up, we wouldn’t let them simply say they we invented it. We wanted – and I put it down in The Report of a Surveyor – a way of assessing what the contribution was after a placement, after an association. Any good results needed insisting on. What has happened is that the Arts Council is composed of people who are supposed to maintain the status quo. And it’s a total disaster because it means no artist is actively allowed in there. As Donald Macrae apparently said: ‘Only the established may innovate. No innovator is established.’ Basel Bernstein quotes it in his book.

JB: Was it also ever your intention to introduce really truly incidental people into these positions? Without the qualification of the art academy and so on?

BS: Absolutely. It was to try and develop a completely new role, and therefore ask how it comes up through education. One of the things we are trying to do possibly with the London Institute, is to see how the experience can be taken into education, how it can be taken on in a range of areas. This is a different role.

JL: As a self-funding body O+I has got to be responsible for turning out the goods, and arguing the goods, against the opposition. So Incidental Persons as participants need to be well enough informed to cope with the job. Now, if they’re not trained in art, they would be liable to be tripped up. That said, the empowerment which it ought to give to everybody is where anyone can come across very good insights. The most unexpected insights can come to the most improbable people and instead of being dismissed as being too improbable to talk to, as one is by the local bureaucracy, or the arts bureaucracy, that should effect something like what Joseph Beuys was doing in his way. Joseph said that the Incidental Person is a YES solution.

JB: In effect, you might argue that today, in what is called the knowledge economy, or within creative industries, what is being assimilated into production is precisely the creative impulse, the virtuosity, the psychic or social experience that might have previously been left out of industrial technique. In a sense you could argue that everyone has become an Incidental Person within the knowledge economy – at least potentially – but in the most debased way. But do you also see something hopeful in that condition where administration and production now assimilate precisely the kind of imaginative, creative impulses that they formerly excluded?

BS: Well yes, but it’s being taken in this most appalling direction, where it’s the money that determines things.

PB: In a funny way, maybe it brings up language and the event again? If we’re saying what’s being imported are language elements, or art-like language, to stimulate innovation, creativity, change, etc., maybe language can have a positive role if we insist on its greater precision. Specificity could be used to combat the lazy blurring of definitions of artistic activity and commercial production, and instead be made to really describe not obscure what people do.

BS: That’s exactly what has to be done.

PB: Digital culture is suffused with the rhetoric of dematerialisation, time-based processes, social collaboration, interactivity and collective authorship – do you feel any affinity with it?

JL: Not if it reasserts the space-based mindset. Collaboration is not one of the words we would be defined by.

BS: Oh!? But social collaboration has to be something I personally believe in for O+I, provided it can be heard above the rhetoric and not commodified by digital culture.

JL: This issue is around (failed) space-based belief systems and a Time-and-Event means of representing the real world. The event-structured media are inclusive where the space-based are divisive.

Pauline van Mourik Broekman <pauline AT metamute.org> is co-editor of Mute magazineJosephine Berry <josie AT metamute.org> is deputy editor of Mute magazine

Anthology: 
Proud to be Flesh

Heavy Opera

John Jordan and James Marriott’s operatic audio tour set in London’s Square Mile is intended to awaken city workers to the impact of financial systems on climate change. But not only does And While London Burns misgauge how much the suits already know, its hysterical tone also harmonises too easily with the coming new eco-order

A fountain of water from the river Walbrook shoots up above my head, drums are pounding, a sound system’s bass rumbles. I hear cheers but I can also hear the clatter of police shields and batons around the corner. Seven years after London’s Carnival Against Capital, when protesters outside the LIFFE exchange broke a water mains sending a thirty-foot jet of water into the air, I am walking just a half a mile north of the same spot. Now I can hear the Thames rushing up the valley the Walbrook follows, bursting its banks, laying waste to the tall glass-fronted buildings as some of the most expensive real estate in London collapses around me. I’m swept up in a sonically induced fantasy driven by the tracks on my MP3player. I am taking part in And While London Burns, an operatic guided walk written by John Jordan and James Marriott, set to music by Isa Suarez and produced by the cross-disciplinary art and education group Platform.1

John Jordan has played a role in both these participatory dramas, firstly as a member of Reclaim the Streets – one of the anti-capitalist groups that coordinated the Carnival Against Capital in June 1999. This time around as an artist commissioned by Platform – an interdisciplinary arts, campaigning and research group committed to longer term, less partisan approaches to transforming the activities of the financial institutions and corporations with head offices in the Square Mile. The walk is an attempt to dramatise the research Platform has conducted into climate change. James Marriott, its co-founder, explains:

Heavy Opera 2

‘It's a way of dramatising and humanising these systems [the role of multinationals and financial systems in fuelling climate change]. It's over-dramatised like all opera, which is why we chose the medium.’2

 

The walk begins at 1 Poultry. At a Starbucks opposite the ruins of the Roman Temple of Mithras our attention is drawn to the multinational’s logo with its allusions to paganism and older gods. The audio tour’s protagonist remembers that before Starbucks went global its logo (designed after a 15th century print by Seattle hippy entrepreneurs) bore nipples and ‘a pair of provocatively spread fishtails’. The mermaid allegorises both allegiance to, and fear of, the sea. She is exotic and, like the valuable cargoes on which the City’s wealth was originally founded, unattainable for those doing the shipping. The City is still resplendent with powerful iconography from the 18th and 19th centuries, pineapples and other exotic objects appear frequently as architectural ornaments advertising the City’s plunder. Today, retail spaces and spaceship architecture adorned with surveillance cameras predominate. At the Royal Exchange (now a luxury shopping mall) our protagonist remembers:

Heavy opera 3

I used to work here in 1989, when it was the Futures Exchange ... the place was a permanent carnival, traders in bright coloured jackets shouting and gesturing to each other ... it couldn’t be more different now.

 

The new City outwardly tells little about where it draws value from and it is this occultation of money the walk confronts by whispering its secrets in your ear.

As its website explains:

 

For over 20 years, PLATFORM has been bringing together environmentalists, artists, human rights campaigners, educationalists and community activists to create innovative projects driven by the need for social and environmental justice.3

Platform has gone some way beyond the statements required to declare oneself a corporate entity in the art world. Operating more like an NGO, Platform sought autonomy from the dependencies of art, eschewing support from established galleries or art spaces. Instead the group concentrates upon building relationships between environmentalists, artists and employees of the core financial and carbon-extracting institutions which, at the same time, are the objects of their research and criticism. Since art has taken a relational turn, Platform’s dialogic practice has been somewhat vindicated and is gaining the interest of institutions with a commitment to engaging with ‘public issues’ outside the institutional safety zone.4 The group has often employed organised walks, ‘walking as a research tool, as a ritual, as performance, as intervention, as a political tool’.5 Here, in the Square Mile that demarcated the original Roman settlement of Londinium, Platform taps the rich network of influence and accumulation they call the ‘carbon web’ – ‘the web of institutions that extract oil and gas from the ground’.

Heavy opera 4

Walking, I am accompanied by three voices or groups of voices. The protagonist, a disillusioned City worker, drifts, trying to throw off the pressure and hypocrisy of the city in an anguished monologue. The guide, a softly spoken, reassuring female voice, tells me when to cross, to ‘be careful’, ‘look left and right at the lights’, as well as offering information about BP, the financial groups and investors who support it (Morely, Deutsche Bank, Royal Bank of Scotland). The third voice is a chorus which echoes the protagonist’s monologue and riffs eccentrically on it, singing ‘They stole her nipples’, ‘look up, look up to the sky’, and, in the Royal Exchange, chants: ‘More, more and more, give us more money, give us more and more ... ’.

The carefully guided walk sometimes becomes a gallop as I realise I have taken a wrong turn or when the voices urge me to speed up. As I am led under and through the City’s architectural machines of accumulation, the opera emphasises its status as a principal node processing the world’s financial flows. Later, I am spun around Bank station and the Swiss Re tower as the chorus and music builds to a crescendo prefiguring a portentous end to the narrative and the walk.

 

Heavy opera 5

The accompanying music first appears to me as corporate muzak, like the sound of distilled comfort and class played as one waits for the bank’s outsourced operatives to process your phone call. Later, the strings dramatise my rush around the city while street noise blends in as I lurch across streams of commuters and traffic. Once I accept that my route is programmed, I find myself caught up in what feels like the soundtrack to a live video game, gleefully aware that no-one else is conscious of my directed path.

And While London Burns is really an ‘experience’ – in the sense that a trip to Disneyland is. The walk deploys four dramatic elements: the narrative of personal crisis; the music; the information about the Earth’s decline under capitalism; and the sounds and sights of the City itself. As the slew of information about the Earth’s rising temperature builds to a picture of crisis, the protagonist becomes more erratic – we supposedly take on the burden of his self-realisation as our own. But then our ‘own’ crisis over climate change’s destructive potential is experienced as adventure.

And While London Burns shares this array of simple mechanisms for dramatising the present really impending apocalypse with two recent films, Apocalypto and Children of Men. The latter plays out anarchist fantasies of a biopolitical neofascist state in the UK, presenting us with:

Heavy opera 6 Image: still from Children of Men 

a world one generation from now that has fallen into anarchy on the heels of an infertility defect in the population ... Set against a backdrop of London torn apart by violence and warring nationalistic sects, Children of Men follows disillusioned bureaucrat Theo (Clive Owen) as he becomes an unlikely champion of Earth’s survival. 6

 

Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto draws a clumsy comparison between the internal breakdown of Mayan civilisation prior to Cortez’s conquest of their lands and the demise of the US as a global hegemon:

 

Throughout history, precursors to the fall of a civilisation have always been the same .... It was important for me to make that parallel because you see these cycles repeating themselves over and over again. People think that modern man is so enlightened but we’re susceptible to the same forces – and we are also capable of the same heroism and transcendence.7

 

These films, like with And While London Burns, indulge a reactionary millenarianism apparently appropriate to our times characterised by anxiety over reproduction, environmental devastation, migration and wars over resources. Each locates a subjective response to ‘objective conditions’ in a male subject, and we see an awakening to the real conditions of the societies in which they live.

For And While London Burns’ authors one gets the feeling that it is something of a stretch of the imagination to place themselves in this character’s shoes, that some under estimation of the ignorant and complacent ‘suit’ is operating. The dynamic between the identification of the listener with this disaffected conservative and the more ‘radical imagination’ celebrated through historical references was, for me, unconvincing.

I struggle with the opera’s construction of experience (the listener’s as well as the conditions they ‘objectively’ face) as consensus reality without challenge. It seems that after so long working at the margins of artistic practice, Platform have finally conceded to the monoform. There is no transcendental subject, no lone saviour of civilisation. Although And While London Burns’ authors are the first to admit that they are self-consciously playing with clichés to dramatic effect, this walk is the very opposite of psychogeographic practice.8 The work engenders the opposite of an active, critical subjectivity.

Heavy opera 7

If there is a dialectic to be found in And While London Burns it is that of flight versus contestation. The audio guide points to the irony of the City as both a centre of research into the causes and effects of climate change (in particular Swiss Re, whose reinsurance business is predicated upon the mediation of threats to profitability) and the self-satisfied ignorance of continued irresponsible plunder. As the opera’s story unravels we are informed that the protagonist’s partner, Lucy, has left to live ‘off-grid’. This response to the threat of environmental devastation is the conceptual equivalent of self-organising nuclear bunker drills at the height of the cold war – a duck and cover strategy, internalising the nuclear state’s imperative that we be afraid, that we submit to pointless rituals in the face of death. At the opposite pole, the rich shoring up their wealth and access to unadulterated leisure and consumption in Dubai are playing a similar end-game with equally futile consequences. As if, in the context of a global emergency, anyone will be safe in either a low impact woodland home with its own energy supply or in a glass tower surrounded by the best defenses petro-dollars can buy. Both visions indulge in the fantasy that in the globalised world there is some escape or autonomy, a form of denial which hopes to obscure all ties between that secure haven and the reality of ongoing surplus value extraction from a landless, illegalised, starving (sub-) humanity.

And While London Burns puts this contemporary meme of millennial conservatism to work in a locale that is synonymous with unsustainable economics, personal debt and risk-taking. The work chooses to reinforce the personalisation and internalisation of a crisis for which capitalism itself should be paying the costs. Its dramatisation of the Earth’s climactic instability hinges on a predicted four degree rise in temperature that we are now almost certain to reach according to the IPCC’s recent report. The facts relayed during the course of this walk tend to confirm these projections. I am not in a position to challenge these facts. Without even trying to challenge these facts, it is still possible to object to the terms in which the urgency of change is being framed. The injunction of climate change is literally ‘change’; through crisis, capital is reorganising itself and this has immediate social impacts. What is being proposed is a series of small adjustments for capital and many dramatic shocks for us. There appears to be very little going on in terms of large projects to actually reverse this situation, instead there is a confluence of self-righteous self-flagellation at a consumer level and government programmes to bully workers, small to medium-sized businesses and new home owners.

Platform have a background of deeper engagement with these issues and access to research that should allow them to analyse the joined up system of capitalist ‘wealth creation’ and its affect on the social environment. However, as the UK and other governments worldwide absorb green and environmental discourse and re-spin it as command – to eat less, work more, pay extra for energy and waste – some engagement with this instrumentalisation of ecological threat would be useful, rather than continuing to pursue an alarmist politics fuelling the fires of eco-fascism in becoming.

Heavy opera 10 Image: still from Apocalypto 

From apocalyptic predictions of dramatic climate change down to fashion tips for the greening of lifestyles, we experience exactly the same ‘terrorism of conformity that underlies all the publicity of modern capitalism’.9 The trouble with this work and almost all public discussion of climate, is that rather than critically evaluating the role of this ecological threat as part of the ongoing deterioration of living standards dictated by capital in most of the world, there is a tendency to exaggerate the threat, to rationalise it as a natural fact, and thus approve and provide training for the modification of behavior urged by capitalism.

 

Footnotes

1

Available for download at: http://www.andwhilelondonburns.com/download/

2

Anna Minton, ‘Down to a Fine Art’, The Guardian, 10 January

3

Platform website, http://www.platformlondon.org/aboutplatform.asp

4

Anna Minton, op. cit.. This celebratory piece highlights a new movement of artists fusing post-conceptual art and environmental art under the aegis of the Royal Society of Arts whose director, Matthew Taylor, was formerly head of the Prime Minister’s policy unit. It would seem that relational aesthetics is rapidly emerging as the idiom by which artists speak to policy makers on behalf of the public.

5

Platform website, op. cit..

6

Children of Men website, http://www.childrenofmen.net

7

Mel Gibson on Apocalypto from the film website, http://apocalypto.movies.go.com

8

As one definition would have it: ‘The theory of the combined use of arts and techniques for the integral construction of a milieu in dynamic relation with experiments in behavior’. Situationist International, ‘Preliminary Problems in Constructing a Situation’ in Ken Knabb, Situationist International Anthology, Bureau of Public Secrets, http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/1.situations.htm

9

‘Geopolitics of Hibernation’, Situationist International #7, April 1962, http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/7.hibernation.htm

Biog

Anthony Iles <anthony AT metamute.org> is assistant editor of Mute

Anthology: 
Proud to be Flesh