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All the World’s a Platform

By Jacob Bard-Rosenberg, 16 December 2014
Image: Photograph by Nina Stuhldreher

A dispatch from Berlin on post-internet art by Jacob Bard-Rosenberg reposted from:


Strewn across the pavements around the Volksbühne are quotations from Rosa Luxemburg’s books and letters. As rags or ribbons, they look like the rubbish of the city’s day, to be cleared away before the beginning of the work of the next, their edifying slogans to be replaced by tomorrow’s headlines. Yet far from matching the pace the city’s everyday, these messages from the past are carved in stone, phrases from the pen of the city’s foremost communist held fast, a mere monument to the revolutionary possibilities of a century ago. A building on the Northwest side of the plaza is the new home of Spike, one of the many cookie-cutter magazines of Berlin’s visual arts scene.


On Monday evening last week that scene’s swarm descended: young, mostly white, stylish. The children of Europe’s mid-century haute bourgeoisie, their parents often ‘politically liberal’ in the way that the concentration of capital in the hands of a Keynesian state was, this younger generation justify their existence with the chatter of ‘projects’ and the benefits of their parents’ accumulated wealth. What draws these people to a discussion event is, at least to the outsider, somehow intriguing. The swarm’s intellectual appetite is voracious only for the easily consumable (or at least all theoretical discussion must be offered to them zum Mitnehmen). Often at these talks one has a sense no different from at Europe’s opera houses, where cavatinas skim lightly over the gleaming heads of those sat in the stalls; public spaces in which the semblance of a crowd gives way to a mass of atoms who are only there to be seen.


The event was a roundtable discussion with artist and essayist Prof. Hito Steyerl, art historian and critic Prof. Susanne von Falkenhausen, and two of the editors of DIS Magazine.1 On the table for discussion was the title ‘History in the time of hypercirculation’. The speakers were certainly members of the city’s art elite: Steyerl and von Falkenhausen are professors at the Universität der Künste and Humboldt Universität respectively, while the editors of DIS have been commissioned to curate the next Berlin Biennale in 2016. The background to the discussion was an intervention regarding contemporary artistic production made by von Falkenhausen in the latest issue of Frieze, ‘Too Much Too Fast. The work of art in the age of digital circulation: a lament’. In her essay, von Falkenhausen takes issue with the current trend for Post-Internet works, claiming that they ultimately fail to address history in the way that artworks ought to: that through their integration into contemporary ideological forms, they renounce the critical power of distance once implied in the notion of artistic autonomy. As such, this discussion offered at least a possibility of critical reflection, for the subject of critique was the relation to history of the works and ‘projects’ of the scene who had arrived to listen.


But away from the seriousness, there is also a sense in which theoretical discussion of the arts are staged as a form of entertainment appropriate to the type of intelligentsia of which this scene considers itself to be composed. This gives the discussions themselves a tinge of comedy. As the roundtable started with what felt like an extended job interview of the DIS editors it seemed this comedy would employ the model popularised by The Apprentice: a comedy of hubris drawing on the overconfidence of entrepreneurs, who become the fall guys as they flailingly attempt to undertake everyday work. During their extended self-presentation the editors played the part well, explaining that they were ‘not editors, not curators,’ and were ‘really uncomfortable about being called artists’. Their divestment of these labours attempted to raise them out of their social situation, as pure personalities – so pure that they might as well be nothing – beyond their work and works. They described how they all used to have corporate and media jobs before the crisis hit. The personal histories – an altogether unbelievable story of woe and hardship – that followed was one of fleeing from the corporations into the financial wreckage of New York. Considerably more Wolf of Wall Street than Wolfen, they talked of creating an alternative, ‘queer-friendly, socially aware’ media platform with ‘autonomy and freedom from other media’. One ought to be clear when faced with these characters that these are the archetypes about whom politicians speak and fantasise, a class of entrepreneurs whose hard noses and technological skills allow them to open up new high-end markets. And all the better if they can give the new businesses an ethical edge to match the glisten of their websites. Where the audience overidentifies with the protagonist in this play, where they with equal obliviousness come to imitate the chosen and successful few, this comedy of hubris can transform into a tragedy of today. We find ourselves dragged down into a pit of unknowing.


Sat opposite these editors, the two professors would continue the discussion by assuming sophisticated positions on the aesthetic question of autonomy and engagement. This was familiar territory, and indeed territory that has been revisited often, albeit apparently not by the editors of DIS. The ‘debate’ centres traditionally on a seminal radio broadcast from 1962 by T. W. Adorno, which was published under the title Engagement in Die neue Rundschau later that year. There he discussed the political theatre of Sartre and Brecht as well as Sartre’s Qu’est-ce que la littérature? It is possible to recapitulate the themes of Adorno’s broadcast relatively briefly: the question at stake is one of how artworks can engage politically. For Adorno, this question is identical to a question of how the empirical objects of everyday life enter into the work – whether they maintain their everyday use and meaning, or whether they are in some way transformed by their enclosure within artistic form, and in what ways they begin to constitute that form. For Sartre, and to an extent for Brecht, the theatre piece is able to become political insofar as the situation appearing on the stage is already functionally social, a fait social – to use Durkheim’s term that Sartre borrowed – such that what occurs on stage remains undistorted by the formal concerns of the artwork. One can think of a history that begins with Brecht’s teaching plays, Der Jasager, Der Neinsager, and Die Maßnahme, as a history that considers the presentation of the politics within the artwork as itself a matter of social or political decision and action.

The sophistication of a position, though, can quickly become sophistry: academics dust off tomes in order to reconstruct positions of aesthetics past. This in itself is no bad thing, but it cannot avoid becoming sophistic when precisely the question of history is at stake and we are left repeating the positions of fifty years ago. Steyerl and von Falkenhausen could be heard scurrying through a ruinous architecture of 20th century aesthetics in order to find the best vantage point, often without addressing the history that has occurred in the meantime. But they also attempted to propose old positions as though they were something brand new. Steyerl returned to the question of engagement by implying a new militarism in the global architecture of ideology, which would justify this turn to engagement because we are engaging an enemy, or rather that enemies are persistently engaging us. Yet the old version this debate was equally militarised, and Adorno’s position makes this explicit: ‘Art is not a matter of pointing up to alternatives but rather of resisting, solely through artistic form, the course of the world, which continues to hold a pistol to the heads of human beings.’2


Adorno’s argument, though, is that even the pistol pointed at your head does not justify art’s resignation of its autonomy. For Adorno, an art of pure survival would thus become political only under the sway of heteronomous violence, and would therefore partake in a politics not able to think any other state of the world. It is precisely the purpose of Adorno’s argument to disarm this manoeuvre, in which one is reduced either to the compulsion of fighting back, grasping reality in fear; or alternatively, sanctioning a retreat inwards, affirming an internal subjective decision as all that remains left, while renouncing any objective responsibilities in registering the severity of the threat. That art is produced under such conditions regardless – that the resistance that art forms may well be continually destroyed, that the heads will continue to be shot off as they have been throughout the capitalist epoch – does not, for Adorno, justify such resignation to the course of the world, and the jettisoning of artistic expression into a whirlpool of blind contingency. Steyerl certainly disagreed: her theoretically most forthright contribution to the evening was a claim that a distance from the artwork, its separation from the subject as object was problematic. In her defence of engagement she claimed that dialectics doesn’t work, and probably never did. But for Adorno such a position would amount to a misrecognition of what it means for art to be social – sociality is not just the immediacy of violence, but instead precisely the mediacy of a violence that conditions an alienation from and within society, a social separation of the things of the world. For Adorno art can become critical only in taking up its separation from society which is itself part of society.


It may be the case that even Adorno’s conclusions, sober and overcast as they are with the history of the Holocaust and the threat of universal annihilation by atomic weaponry, are too positive for the catastrophic times through which we live. It is hardly a surprise that some, or many, have given up all hope, and in doing so give up on the critical power of art, grasping instead for a certain practical instrumentality. But Adorno at least would resist a claim to a practical immediate truth found in partisanship, which despite being part of society would hope to discover deep within itself some power that has escaped society’s total system of production and value. For Adorno, the part and the whole are already fully mediated in one another – indeed this is society’s dialectical form.

That we find ourselves returning to, rehearsing and performing once again these old arguments is somehow surprising given the general triviality of the actual works that appear under the rubric of ‘post-internet art’. But it is at the same time unsurprising insofar as these debates appear appropriate to post-internet art both in its own justification as a new form of art that takes seriously the work as a fait social, and in opposition to this, as a means of diagnosing quite why this work seems so trivial in terms of its aesthetic meaning.


In order to think about how these questions apply to post-internet art, they require a number of modifications: firstly, that we are dealing here not with a stage as in Brecht or Sartre but instead a set of platforms designed for ‘social media’; secondly, that we recognise that these media are already the media of political decision in contemporary society; and finally, that these social media offer a framework of artifice that is appropriate to art just as the artifice of political representation seemed to open the stage for artistic representation for Sartre or Brecht. In the most radical formulation we might imagine, in the confluence of art and social media, that all the world is a stage, a literal Volksbühne or a platform of the people. These modifications, and the notion of something like a world-stage, are treated as a matter of history. The production of these spheres and the types of subjectivity and sociality they entail is, according to the theories of history suggested during the discussion, due to a transformation in contemporary modes of circulation (excluding the occasional glib reference to theories of historical speed, one imagines borrowed from Paul Virilio or from accelerationists.)


Steyerl established the grounds for this account of history, arguing that during the Bush years in the early 1990s history ‘slowed down’ for 15 years in such a way that there was no present. But during the crisis, from 2008 onwards, something changed. The name that was being given to this was ‘hypercirculation’, which the moderator for the evening, one of Spike magazine’s staff, mentioned had been coined for the occasion. What was being driven at was the situation on the internet in which user-generated content can be shared widely and quickly, and globally consumed. The theoretical armature of this claim was that that the character of circulation during most of the 20th century was broadly conceptual, but that this has recently been replaced by an imagistic mode. This is hardly a new claim, and one can find similar arguments from Situationists under the guise of ‘spectacle’ made in a period as long ago as Adorno was talking on the radio. But here, differently, the claim was being made that the circulation of online content has superceded the circulation of commodities as an arena for radical politics, insofar as this circulation discovers itself replete with a new system of value and valorisation in the ‘like’ or the ‘favourite’ or even the ‘share’. Finally, one could imagine emerging a most excessively hopeful reading of this history: a horizon of social transformation appears within this new world of circulation as a full self-consciousness of this world of images, a post- or trans-human digital commons, a communism of communication technologies in the perpetual reinvention of a society of avatars that redeems the oppression of those people for whom they stand. Such a version of events is hinted at critically by von Falkenhausen in her essay, but equally was suggested by Steyerl during the discussion, although both would seem to maintain that currently if such a history has taken place it signifies not so much the promise of utopia but the actuality of a state of global war, and is a consequence of a militarisation of the technics of representation.


To readers of Marx, the fact that the processes involved in capitalist dynamics might involve both concepts and semblances does not exactly arrive as a surprise. But more than this, it seems that what is being pointed to here, in the name of deriving a social critical art from historical transformations, is little more than a refocussing of a lens which, in the 20th century, was aimed at production, and now turns its face to circulation. It is precisely because there is something already imagistic about circulation that this new aesthetics does this. But again, already Adorno had offered a critique of this thinking. He describes, in his broadcast, a Brecht who ‘wanted to capture the inherent nature of capitalism in an image’. And looking at Brecht’s Die heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfe describes a practice in which,


Events in the sphere of circulation, where competitors are cutting one another’s throats, take the place of the appropriation of surplus value in the sphere of production, but in comparison with the latter, the cattle dealers’ brawls over loot are epiphenomena that could not possibly bring about the great crisis on their own; and the economic events that appear as the machinations of the rapacious dealers are not only childish, as Brecht no doubt wanted them to be, but also unintelligible by any economic logic, no matter how primitive.3


As Marxists the question we must ask of this claim of historical transformation is, conversely, whether the arena of radical politics and critical art has truly shifted from the sphere of production to a sphere of circulation? And furthermore, what kind of politics that would look like if it is not to be reduced on one side to conspiracy theories or on the other to a liberal politics of ‘fairness’ and the whinges of Facebook users each time the terms and conditions change, that have more traditionally occupied this apparently critical territory?


If Brecht tried to capture an image of capitalism in the image of the unfair trade and the racket, then post-internet art often approaches the subject of the circulation in which it is ensnared somewhat differently. It trades on the apparent poverty that props up the world’s richest corporations.4 Its critical moments are reduced to compression and the glitch, a sort of short-changing on the capacity for lyric expression and representation, as though the presentation of virtual damage qua irrationality might redeem the damage of the real, inflicted by production which remains imageless. Meanwhile although the likes and shares – indeed linked often to profit and corporate interests on the internet – appears as a system of value, it at the same time is fundamentally without economy, and gives a mere semblance of the true economic system that continues to govern life and production.


Perhaps a more sceptical reading of all of these phenomena in contemporary circulation is also possible. It would maintain that there is no promise of reconciliation in this transformation. Even if a historical transformation has taken place it has only divided form and content further. And the circulation of images as content amounts to little more than a global supermarket in which chunks of history can be purchased at will. Finally, instead of imagining a great online commons it would note that the systems of value and valorisation that drive this vast machine are only partially encompassed by it, and while offering a practical use within it do not give a full representation of circulation itself, and therefore offer no capacity for the system to become self-conscious.


I arrive at this image of a great historical supermarket because it is possible with such a notion to show also that in this apparently critical project there is a deliberate obscuring of a differentiation between production and consumption. Furthermore, there seems to be some confusion about what is meant by circulation here, and it might be beneficial to make some relatively old-fashioned Marxian distinctions. If the form of artworks is determined by a global ‘platform’ of social media, then happily the content of artworks has become a ‘platt-content’, as thin as it is banal. Or as von Falkenhausen complained pithily during the discussion, ‘current art is boring, uninteresting’. Within this model the producer of content becomes the consumer of the platform: the production of a Tumblr post becomes the valorisation of Tumblr. The task of a critique of circulation – something which Marx himself attempted in Volume 2 of Das Kapital – would in this case be to understand the relations between the content and the forms of online media. That is, to understand how what a picture is like on Instagram can affect what Instagram is like as a platform, or how it affects how other platforms that might compete with it. But more often than not the answer by artists and critics is a resigned one, which aims to protect something of the radicalism of the content while deferring to the platform as unchangeable. And even where the question might be asked of individual platforms – of Twitter or Tumblr or Instagram as pieces of capital – this can be levelled down to singular world-platform of the image called ‘the internet’.


It is this modification of the argument about engaged art, about a singular aesthetic world of circulation, that will turn out to be crucial. Humming in the background of this entire discussion around autonomy and engagement in the 1960s was the motto with which Walter Benjamin closed his 1935 essay on ‘The Artwork in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility’:

‘Fiat ars - pereat mundis’ [let art flourish, and the world pass away] says fascism, expecting from war, as Marinetti admits, the artistic gratification of a sense perception altered by technology. This is evidently the consummation of l’art pour l’art. Humankind, which once, in Homer, was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, has now become an object of contemplation for itself. Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as the supreme aesthetic pleasure. Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art.5


Post-internet art ought to take heed at this paragraph, and indeed it serves as a severe warning against all of those quiet utterances of a proposed ‘new futurism’. The problem of making universal this sphere of images is that it is a fundamentally integrating force in terms of the capacity to critique commodities. It is not the case that semblance itself is not capable of critique in the way that concepts are. But rather that the semblance made universal fails to recognise its own political limitations. There clearly exists today, contra critique, a resigned strain of thought that suggests that art unavoidably arrives at forms of semblance heteronomously governed by those corporations that monopolise the internet through providing the means of the circulation of data. This, apparently, is politics.


The people from DIS were asked by von Falkenhausen if what they do is a disruptive practice. Beside one of the DIS editors, who looked entirely vacant, the other gave her face a scrunch beneath her fashionable haircut and replied, ‘to the artworld?’ Was this the punchline of our comedy? No-one laughed.‘No’, said von Falkenhausen. She wanted to know whether it was disruptive to the commercial world. The response she got was an enigmatic, ‘it can shift things’. Further pressing on this topic would lead out into a discussion of how this work might lead to ‘options’ within capitalism. Indeed it became increasingly clear during the discussion that there was no intention of DIS Magazine fulfilling any historical role other than that which defines the current contours of capitalist history. This ‘shifting things’ might be attributed to any technology. Both the spinning jenny and the camera ‘shifted things’ in just this way – and indeed both have their utopian moments, be it the end of work or the capturing of the present for eternity – but for the editors of DIS such utopic moments are not at stake. Indeed they seem interested only in the same old shift of outmoding that defines the capitalist new as fashion, a competitive aspect that produces a historical new that turns out to be just the same. If the world-stage is nothing but a supermarket, then these entrepreneurs are its successful high-end confectioners, dishing out eye-candy to an expanding class of rich young artists. And so the tragedy is completed, the comic protagonist turns a mirror, showing the audience that they share in the hubris, letting out a demonic cackle. It turns out that the joke of art’s resignation is on them. To this class of entrepreneurs there is no means of action that would transform history, and works of art disavow their responsibility to history through claiming pure semblance as pure content while renouncing questions of form.


I feel like we have heard this story before, or at least a variant of it. When Wagner built Bayreuth he imagined a truly demotic theatre, charged with a revolutionary bourgeois sensibility during an era of decline. In Bayreuth the stage itself could become a world; the people of Bavaria could come to watch their world disintegrating through juridical and political contradiction, and finally being wrapped in fire, all as resplendent political allegory. Today each person can truly stand in as Wotan: forced to represent themselves on the internet platforms, and ripped apart virtually by poverty of the image as broken semblance. Wotan, least free of all men, bound by his own eternal laws, is the archetype of a character who cannot act historically. And it is the failure of Wagner’s art that it takes for critique of society a heightening of its semblance character into a universal phantasmagoria. In the shadow of Wotan’s spectacular downfall rises, from the ashes of the old world, the shrewd impresario: Wagner.


All of this is not to say that there is no hope of critique in any post-internet art. But where these artworks think it is a sufficient description of contemporary subjectivity to find oneself granular, compressed, cropped and glitchy in one’s modes of social (or artefactual) self-presentation, then these works founder on becoming a mere critique of circulation. For those who submit to this, they can claim the status of an avant-garde only in resigning from the acting upon history, from living historically or creating works that do so. They resign in the comfort of living within, and in reproducing interminably, this world made desolate for everybody else. Spiritual warmth is exchanged for knowing grin of the Faustian pact. Resignation allows them the sly recognition that in their utterance that all the world’s a stage they also invoke the last scene of all that ends this strange eventful history: second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.


When I leave the talk I am still outside the Volksbühne, and Luxemburg’s words are still carved into the ground before me, phrases from the pen of the city’s foremost communist held fast, a mere monument to the revolutionary possibilities of a century ago. Cold but not dead. I haven’t yet given up on the idea that these streets could come alive, and that in that moment traffic might flow between them and the stage, that even these rags and ribbons of words in stone might be swept up in the furor. I cannot yet find freedom from their coldness in virtuality, exchanging this city for another.




1 I don’t know the names of the DIS editors, but I’m sure given the size of the crowd at least someone somewhere actually cares.

2 T. W. Adorno, ‘Commitment’, trans. Shierry Weber-Nicholsen, in Notes to Literature Volume 2, p.80.

3 T. W. Adorno, ‘Commitment’, p.83.

4 For the fullest version of this argument, see Hito Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen, particularly the chapter titled ‘In Defense of the Poor Image’, pp.31-45.

5 Walter Benjamin, ‘Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility’, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Harry Zohn, 2008. Translation amended for clarity.