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

By Josephine Berry Slater, 20 September 2012

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.


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’ 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?

Proud to be Flesh