The Shadow of Ikea-ification Falls On Us All
A recent exhibition, The Whole Earth: California and the Disappearance of the Outside, interrogated what pale blue fragments lie in the wake of the whole earth’s broken promise. Review by Hannah Black
Images of the moon landing in 1969 show American astronauts taking giant steps on new territory. The footage is at once haunting and banal, US colonial and purportedly global, an impossible multiple charge that must be one of the reasons for the psychically protective conspiracy theory that it was all a studio set fake. On the way back from a visit to Diedrich Diedrichsen and Anselm Franke’s encyclopaedic exhibition The Whole Earth: California and the Disappearance of the Outside at the Haus der Kulteren der Welt in Berlin, I saw a Red Bull ad featuring contemporary space icon Felix Baumgartner, suspended above the earth, about to begin his pointless descent. Where the astronauts ascended, a triumph of western capitalist ingenuity, Baumgartner falls straight down, a single vulnerable body, the melancholic Fordist opening credits of Mad Men played out on a cosmic plane. The main pleasure of watching his fall was not the triumph of science, but its possible failure: the chance that something might have gone fatally wrong.
Image: Still from opening credits of Mad Men
The Whole Earth, which closed at the beginning of July, was the second big show of HKW’s Anthropocene series, a high concept programme situating the present conjuncture in the long history of the earth: the contemporary moment as the final domination of second nature over first. Scientist Paul Crutzen proposed the term ‘anthropocene’ to indicate a geological age of the human. HKW’s use of the concept exudes institutional confidence, fusing an invocation of contemporaneity, the long sweep of geological time, and the bonus that it excludes absolutely nothing. More problematically, the idea of the anthropocene, like much eco-discourse, is full of hidden fissures: there is, in reality, no unified humanity that confronts nature as one equally guilty and equally implicated global subject. The neutral scientific phrase ‘human behaviour’ stands in for the rapacity of capitalism, naturalising exploitation and ignoring how the causes and effects of ecological change are split along the faultlines of race, gender and class.
Diedrichsen and Franke’s show is a corrective intervention into this analysis free analysis, critiquing its implied Eden (the intact earth) via an anti-history of pop culture. The show’s premise is the famous NASA image of the globe released in 1968, the blue and white sphere from which Neil Armstrong and colleagues departed and towards which Baumgartner plummets, a telos – from corporate ascent to individual descent – that forms a similar arc to that described by the show’s main argument. The curators interrogate the ‘blue planet’ image as a false holism, an ideological insistence on an indivisible global mankind, and a narcissistic involution of perspective. Like Adam Curtis in his series All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (excerpted in the show, which, like Curtis, draws extensively on Fred Turner’s book From Counterculture to Cyberculture), the curators pin some of the blame on Stewart Brand, the cybernicist hippie who campaigned for the image’s release and displayed it on the cover of his famous Whole Earth Catalog. This was a guide to ‘sustainable living’, including a mixture of instructions about farming, crafts and so on, and advertisements for the necessary equipment. Both the terminology and the ethos exemplified by the Catalog – ‘sustainability’, ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’ – have been enthusiastically taken up by current forms of capitalism. The now familiar argument that California hippie culture was not co-opted by neoliberalism, but rather was neoliberalism’s crucible, is evident here, but Diedrichsen and Franke grapple with this ossified counterculture in great detail, exploring its ambiguities and gaps as well as marking its seamless transition into the corporate.
The curators also emphasise the Catalog’s credentials as a kind of precursor to the internet, following the development of the California tendency through into the development of the personal computer and the internet. Brand’s faith in the ‘whole earth’ ideology bears the mark of the hippie obsession with connection, a thread that runs through the show, taking in the Californian turn towards Eastern mysticism as well as technologies of connection such as the personal computer and the internet, which Brand helped to facilitate and popularise. As Diedrichsen and Franke make clear, the hippie discourse of communality lacks any real analysis of capitalism, and uncritically supports togetherness as always already a good thing. Yes, we are all connected, not by cosmic vibrations but by value in motion, and some of us might want less rather than more of this unwilled connection. Among other uneasy connections, the show traces the multiple readings of outer space as nationalist expansion, frontier, global unity and an Afro-futurist repudiation of a racist earth. ‘We have returned to claim the pyramids’, as George Clinton announces in Parliament’s song ‘Mothership Connection (Starchild)’; less lyrically and from an earthbound perspective, Richard Pryor’s roughly contemporaneous joke expresses a similar antagonism: ‘Let’s help those white motherfuckers get to the moon, so they leave us alone.’
Image: Mother Earth News, January 1970
Diedrichsen and Franke’s argument unfolds from the centre of the space, where a series of panels discusses the ‘whole earth’ in terms of ’60s anti-state protests, including the Chicago uprisings of 1968 when protesters chanted the slogan ‘the whole world is watching’ at violent police. The slogan is juxtaposed with the Grateful Dead’s description of the lives they soundtracked, ‘You are the eyes of the world.’ This moral surveillance, exemplified in the ‘whole earth’ perspective, converges with the surveillance technologies deployed by the state. Stewart Brand thought that images of the whole prompted eco-awareness by making it clear that the earth is not an infinitely resourced flat plane but instead a compact sphere; at the same time as the earth was apparently offered to all, its borders were sealed shut: planet as panopticon. What is already paradise becomes already prison, in the same moment. Right behind this section of the show, another super-compressed history rifles through images of trashed Hiroshima and briefly describes how Nazi technological innovations were later deployed by the US. The NASA earth image supersedes the mushroom cloud; an image of total destruction is supplanted by a holistic image of total creation. In this reading, the globe picture contains and represses the mushroom cloud, itself an impossible metonym supporting something essentially unfigurable. ‘No image is capable of representing the evil of the Shoah,’ emphasise Diedrichsen and Franke. And yet the (American) protest generation of the 1960s arose from the ashes of the war brandishing NASA’s blue ball as the sigil of an intact world, already complicit with a violent and deliberate forgetfulness that would flower into (among other things) the Cold War. The detail that the first images of space were produced by Nazi V2 rockets is here just a grim flourish.
This breathlessly dense argument is supported with video, text, images and so on, arranged on cheap looking display modules consisting of black tubing, card and trailing wires. The flatpack aesthetic echoes another of the show’s many contentions, that models of ‘self-esteem’ invented and developed alongside systems theory present a monadic and endlessly perfectible persona occupying its own mini-universe: ‘the actualised, emancipated, admired, narcissistically spiced up self has become,’ says a tranche of typically voluble text, ‘an ingredient in many of the intangible products and forms that…play an important role in the post-industrial economy.’ The shadow of Ikea-ification falls on us all. Here it is materially evident not only in the bolted together furniture but in the vast array of ideas and works on show; visits to the show eat up hours as you trail around what feels like an endless industrial hangar, throwing what you can into the trolley: mushroom clouds, cybernetics, dolphins, Larry David, Jefferson Airplane, Parliament, Bob Marley, desert, ocean, outer space… and more… . Perhaps the only reason this show isn’t just a book is that if it were a book it would have to be the internet.
Image: The Whole Earth: California and the Disappearance of the Outside, exhibition opening, 25 April 2013
The themed modules are little islands speaking to each other across the space, as a thread here is picked up over there, mostly in essayistic text panels. Among and in between, artworks appear, although not strictly as objects in themselves but subsumed to the curatorial argument. That artworks might speak for themselves or think through complexity in their own terms is not part of the strategy, although Diedrichsen and Franke show great tenderness when it comes to pop music, quoting lyrics as if they were precious trinkets salvaged from a burned home. Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane is admired for lyricising nihilism, but we’re left in no doubt that she’s just another sell-out; in the catalogue, Diedrichsen recounts a story of her christening a Virgin plane ‘Jefferson’, and notes bitterly that she invested her money wisely and now spends her time painting. Their contempt so attentive it might as well be love, Diedrichsen and Franke can’t forgive the counterculture for its failure to live up to a single one of its promises (with perhaps the exception of the Dead Kennedys, who are praised for grasping the fascism latent in hippiedom). In this they reveal the show’s convergence with what they identify as an ambivalence found in punk:
it was never clear whether the criticism was levelled at tenets of the old counterculture or its betrayal of these tenets, such as the development of business and government models.
Is punk’s critique of the hippies that they failed to actualise what they proposed, or does punk reject even the premises of this proposal? Put differently: what is the ground of the outside that has disappeared?
It is in this that the show exceeds Adam Curtis’ ‘bad great man’ theory of history, even though at times it is indistinguishable from Curtis’ thesis of cybernetic Californication. The tension is in the potentially redemptive content of the gestures that the curators excoriate as failures, the very critique revealing an inability to give up on the problematic, shifting kernel of possibility contained within even crass hippiedom. The tension between possibility and impossibility, between art as the vanguard of the commodity and art as the immolation of the commodity form, remains unresolvable.
This is curation as accusation, similar in form although not spirit to the cabinet of curiosities approach deployed at Documenta last year and at this year’s Venice Biennale. At HKW, the staging of moments, objects, fragments is (unlike in Kassel and Venice) not posited neutrally as a wonder of simultaneity, at best a suspicious coincidence – Diedrichsen and Franke array a charge sheet against all contemporary culture since at least the 1950s. Perhaps the implicit self-critique could have been more clearly articulated: this anti-global theory is evidently itself a global theory, a difficulty that can’t be entirely resolved with the defence that it’s the object of critique (i.e. capitalism) that’s problematically totalising, not the critique itself. If, as the curators themselves suggest by way of Deleuze, all claims to universality can be judged on the fate of the minority revolt, how do they fare by this metric? The minoritarian position of the individual artworks in relation to the total argument makes no revolt possible; the artworks are effaced into illustrations, examples. Rejecting the Documenta-esque conviction that juxtaposition is itself sufficient to make the argument, every element is drawn into the total theory. The objects are not the argumentation, it’s all about the concept: the artworks themselves recede, mimicking the disappearance attributed to the outside.
The show renders the space a museum of the uselessness of museums. In this, it is appositely located in the exhibition hall at HKW, a building gifted to West Germany by the US early on in the Cold War. It was originally intended as a staging of mediations between the ‘new world’ and ‘old world’, US hegemony versus Western European hegemony, a propagandist drama that necessarily excluded its own necessary exclusions: the Eastern bloc, Africa (still under colonial rule when HKW first opened), and so on. In a reflective turn, HKW’s recent programme has converted the presentation of ‘world culture’ into an interrogation of globalisation, of what makes ‘worlds’ visible. Of course it is right to reject the neo-colonial/propagandist/liberal wager of the original HKW, that objects and performances can convert violent antagonisms into merely comparative differences; but where does this repudiation of the artwork as metonym of culture leave the artwork itself? The question is particularly pressing in the context of The Whole Earth, where the idea of art as critique is put under so much pressure.
Image: Adrian Piper, LSD Womb, 1965
A pair of Ashley Bickerton works, resembling logo covered slabs of institutional infrastructure, bulky dark objects hung unobtrusively on the dark walls, quietly insisted on being seen and thought about, but an unforgiving anti-nostalgia clung here too: it’s hard now to perceive the use of logos in an artwork as a provocation or even a joke. Philipp Lachenmann’s SHU-Still was beautiful and horrible, a Photoshopped image showing an impossible number of planes coming in to land over a maximum security prison in the California desert, but the slab of text necessary to explain the image’s ingenuity blended into the vast quantity of text elsewhere – the text became the point. The show’s span is also the long historical moment during which art stopped being the avant-garde of image production, a role now fully taken up by mass culture. Perhaps reflecting this, the curatorial text runs rings around its amassed examples. Here, an incisive summary of Curb Your Enthusiasm: ‘a malicious, hopelessly divided middle class doomed to perish’ in the midst of which Larry can only fall back on his ‘particular, unbearable position’. There, a brief history of dolphins:
the dolphin – hated fish thief of the late nineteenth century – was seen, by the ’70s, the age of Aquarius, as a super intelligent, ultra peaceful, erotically uninhibited, smiling incarnation of soulful holism.
Reagan’s speeches illuminate Kubrick’s 2001, the Rastafarian idea of Babylon is rooted in the same soil as Adorno’s wrong life that cannot be lived rightly and so on, in an exuberant display of references that showcases not the works on display, but Diedrichsen and Franke’s brilliance.
A tiny, cramped panel on Ana Mendieta is a very cursory attempt to include feminism in an otherwise comprehensive account of counterculture. To compress this even further: in brief, the curators are suspicious of essentialist feminisms that attempted to fuse the female body and the suffering earth. They are bigger fans of Dara Birnbaum’s deconstructive tactics, although her Wonder Woman video doesn’t benefit all that much from being embedded in the section on self-esteem and management techniques. The period covered by the show saw the aggressive global reification of white women into sexy enigmas and/or fun lifestyle accessories, and it’s disappointing that so little attention is paid to this other disappearance, which is also the disappearance of the supposedly private sphere of family life. Especially as the exhibition does reflect on the radical left’s tragic rejection of ‘identity politics’, suggesting that it was the global and holistic capitalism of the 20th century that framed problematic differences and antagonisms as individual ‘identities’ rather than structural conditions for oppression and accumulation, meaning that left wing refusals of identity politics became distorted repetitions of the capitalist dynamic. If the show, too, pays scant attention to the politics of race and gender, it could be because for Brand and those like him, the blue planet and, later, the exponential development of IT, meant that otherness and its attendant forms of suffering were just failures to get with the holistic, progressive programme.
The promise of the blue planet migrates into the screen and inside the self. In 1990, long after the white optimism of the 1960s, a Voyager satellite six billion kilometres from earth sent back an image of the planet as a tiny point of light, christened a ‘pale blue dot’ by Carl Sagan. In a recent text first published by Arcadia Missa, the artist Jesse Darling borrows this phrase to describe the GPS signal on an iPhone map, constructing a nihilistic erotics of the interface: ‘I make it open wider and wider until it’s just a pale blue dot: you are here. And by you I mean me.’ Subjective, de-subjectivised, isolated, the contemporary pale blue dot lacks the totalising force of the blue planet celebrated by Brand, just as contemporary capitalism is a fractured version of what it was, then, in the west, in the 1960s, for those (like Brand) privileged enough to make use of it. The blue planet of 1968 was an image of capitalism’s power at the height of capitalism’s power; the blue dot of 1990 is off-centre and indistinct. And now? Outer space is long gone; now it’s the inside that is disappearing; as Darling writes, ‘It doesn’t cohere but there’s no collapse; it doesn’t cohere; and yet, you are here.’ As the global exterior vision of NASA folds into the interior surveillance of private space practised by the NSA, the culmination of the cybernetic-capitalist project depicted here, it is both that every particular is erased, and that it is never allowed to die.
Hannah Black is a writer and artist. She recently graduated from MFA Art Writing at Goldsmiths and is currently on the studio programme at the Whitney ISP in New York. Her solo show Intensive Care is on at Legion TV (legion-tv.com) till 6 October 2013
The Whole Earth: California and the Disappearance of the Outside ran from 26.04.2013 – 07.07.2013 at Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin. A catalogue for the exhibition The Whole Earth: California and the Disappearance of the Outside edited by the exhibition’s curators, Diedrich Diederichsen and Anselm Franke, is available in German and English.