Part I - Situated — The Errata of space's continuum
But home does not preexist, it was necessary to draw a circle around that uncertain and fragile center, to organise a limited space. - Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus
In 1995, the artists, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, wrapped the entire Reichstag building in fabric before it resumed function as the parliament of a reunified Germany. In 2018, Trevor Paglen launched a temporary satellite into space. Both works are critical examinations of spatial distances, but, whereas the act of Christo and Jeanne-Claude serves to distance the artist from an institution - and is something that could - in theory at least - be replicated by non-artistic “civilians”, Paglen’s work exists in much closer proximity to the institutions it critiques and it certainly isn’t something that could be easily replicated by the civilians, say as a Tikok challenge.
The roles—occasionally interchangeable — between artist, institution, and viewer have always been a product of distance, which is defined usually in terms of space. But something has changed drastically in that relationship as the socio-economic middle gears that had once allowed for working one’s way into (at least) the lower middle class, a position from which contempt against mediocrity can be expressed safely, has been gradually eradicated. In an inspiring and sharply analytical book, Dark Matter, the artist, author, and activist Gregory Sholette notes that we are living in what sociologist Ulrich Beck calls “the risk society”. A state of no longer trust/security/ not yet destruction/disaster. Sholette continues: “in the society of risk one either succeeds remarkably, or fails miserably. There is little grey area in-between. And most of us fall into the latter category.” To this I can only add that we have since leaped forward into a “high-risk society” and are now in what Hito Steyer calls a “vertical perspective” meaning that even those who manage once to succeed spectacularly are still on the same plane (first class or not) that is destined to crash and are not in any way safer from the perpetual and bottomless fall. This new level of risk is something that likely serves as a prime motivator for artists who continue to spin the hamster wheel of artistic visibility long after they acquire a small but loyal following. Living and working in this high-risk society, artists, much like everyone else, have a very different relationship to distance and space than they would have had during the age of private patronage. Today X location from which distance is sought defines the ideological mode of production, regardless of whether the artwork itself is an exemplar of ambiguity, or a critique of capitalism.
If at the beginning of the Beckian risk-society - during the Reagan-Thatcher period of expansion of capital’s role in the economy - artists worked with scale to win back territory from the sprawl of corporations. Then in the early days of the networked era, artists work to distance themselves - out of necessity - from what Sholette aptly calls the cultural “dark matter”. He writes: “A missing cultural mass is both a metaphor for something vast, unnamable and essentially inert, as well as a phantasmagoric proposition concerning what might be possible at this moment of epistemological crisis in the arts and structural crisis in global capital.” A creating and creative class that “makes up the bulk of the artistic activity produced in post industrial society” is equipped with an ever growing arsenal of graduate degrees in fine art are those whom the high-art economy depends both financially and intellectually. These constituents of “dark matter”, Sholette continues, “is not inartistically progressive, not in the typical liberal sense or radical senses of that term. Instead it possesses at best a potential for progressive resistance, as well as for reactionary anger.” This invisible, anonymous, perpetually mobile, and identityless camp-ressentiment is the only forum from where something remarkable or truly worthy of attention may still exist and be discovered. And yet it’s also something many artists seek distance from (not without a scavenging through it first) paradoxically, because it’s not space specific.
In a “How to Do Nothing” - a book recommended to me by a number of esteemed colleagues - by Jenny Odell - an author and researcher whom I admire - Oddel urges paying attention to art on museum walls, birds, and nature, and taking some distance from the miserable barrage of opinions on the internet as forms of resistance to the attention economy. As tempted as I am to follow Odell into the mythical higher world of the “not online” such a world does not exist. The artworks at the museum were not made from a separate cloth, the rhythms of the birds and nature are directly affected by network capitalism. The act of paying sustained attention does not make all things equally interesting, and, if it does, then that same logic can certainly be extended to Twitter and Instagram, which are placed low on the hierarchy of “worthwhile” things by the author. Roumaging through an obscure-media-tumblr or reading Ingrid Burrington stream of conciousness twitter is infinitely more fascinating, to me at this time, than an observing the dumb wren that has been circling the compost bin all week. It is just so. While having a brief respite from the internet has undeniable benefits to one’s individual mental health, an argument for the communal future can no longer be produced in a binary of productivity and inactivity, inside and outside, off and online. Preserving the classic hierarchies of cultural value and class backed into these territories, Oddel herself points out are obviously classist, may inadvertently work against desire for justice and redistribution of wealth that shines so brightly in her work.
Seeking distance between the over-saturating sociality of capital cities and the extreme isolation of silent retreats, between offline nature and algorithmically-driven culture (before the synthesis of the two emerges on a canvas) is a gesture in the direction of an aspiration self, an individual success, and a dream of a good and moral life, a dream that is no longer achievable if it were were through individual discipline alone.
Some form of inoperativity is certainly an important part of resisting the market that is reliant on a regularity of _oversupply, but I fear simply that it cannot be situated in zones of silent retreats, especially if they are available to few and not the many. If the dark matter, as Oddel aptly points out, cannot afford to retreat from the opioid effect of social media then nor can anyone else. Not because this is a zone of weakness and despair-- although it is certainly that -- but because in this opaque shape-shifting meme producing hot mass is the center of the underground economies of sabotage, the unstoppable power of the Ressentiment. A narrative power that the alt-right and 4chat had successfully harnessed for years.
Similarly, many of the artist emerging in the noughts still strive for a form of success that can be represented in a form of a ledger of islands unlocked by the cultural worker in a game of Hotline Miami Biennial: 4 residencies, 3 places of retreat, all demarcated by circles in which the hygenification of divine ideas can occur away from the crickets. What artists need today, it would appear, to be recognized away from the dark cultural mass, is not only a room of one’s own, but a great many enlightened (light filled) rooms, halls, mock institutions, treasurer, and tax havens of one’s (and one’s legal team) own. Most of all the schmoozing space, a museum in which the dogs of war can smell each other out. Something that is perhaps worth just as much attention as the amazing vibrating colour at SFMOMA, described by Oddel in “How to do Nothing”.
The particular cartography is a byproduct of Reagan-Thatcherite accelerationism that has encouraged the unapologetic expansion of conglomerates into every sphere of existence (at the same time removing the margin of safety of the middle classes). The principles of art sponsorship presented by the Business Committee for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts were laid out so quickly that they were laughably banal: an authentic display of gratitude was meant to make Exxon, Philip Morris, and BT look appear as good corporate citizens (rather than giant entities that do questionable things for good reasons).
The burnished image of a wealthy benefactor was far from the only thing that made art such an attractive investment to the super wealthy. Money alone, as Thorstein Veblen once argued, does not, in and of itself, constitute a sufficient credential for a membership in the dominant section of the upper class, and, as such, it does not provide the validation of (equally rich) peers. To belong to the cultured class one had to mix with it somewhere or somehow. The idea behind corporate sponsorship was never to sponsor culture, but to own it in the most visceral and colonial way so as to secure a display of sovereignty, and then, when all was fully colonised, to copy and paste Guggenheim Bilbao everywhere at once.
In Privatizing Culture, a book that offers a detailed account of corporate art sprawl on both sides of the Atlantic, Chin-tao Wu outlines the prototype of what is now a distinct target group for an algorithm. The proximity of the venue location to the maximum number of people of interest for the sponsor became paramount in securing the funding for whatever kind of art was allowed in the venue.
She points out that companies in Britain tended to sponsor things within a one-mile radius of the Houses of Parliament because they wanted to reach MPs. Chin-tao goes on to point out that the significance of this could not be understated in a political era when politicians could increasingly simply be bought. To stand apart from the criminal class, however, the politicians had to be bought unsimply. A museum, unlike a strip club was (still) a place of statue, allowing those inside it from the business, political and cultural worlds to recognise (or rather, misrecognize it in a particular manner) one another freely even if they were financed by the same actors, making the business models of corporations and institutions of culture virtually indistinguishable.
Chin-tao Wu writes:
It is above all at exclusive events in arts venues that the business and political élite meet and recognize one another. It is no surprise that the names of executives often crop up in arts sponsorship in media reporting.
The wave of brazen invasion of capital into the cultural sphere has saw the emergence of two cultural projects, both rooted in the ideas of reterritorialization: artist placement programmes and so-called institutional critique. The former was a campaign to recognise artist as a worker who could then be grafted onto institutions.
In Multimillion Dollar Art Boondoggle, written in October 1971 art critic Max Kozloff previsaged the birth of a corporate artist.
This project has created countless financial schemes that are still available to artists today, and was partially responsible for the rise of the hyphenated “artist-ethnographer”, the type of artist whose work is exhibited thousands of miles away from where they can afford to live, and made even further away where they can afford to outsource the labour. An artist-worker today is a perpetually-present labourer whose deliveries are frequent enough to be measured in a way that is consistent with the structure of financial reports. It's a challenge to find a call for proposals that isn’t requesting artists to explain their work in terms of the gross profit of social good, a measure that can be entered into an “exploitable creativity index”.
At the time when Robert Morris, Lucy Lippard, Carl Andre, and Hans Haacke first founded the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC) the term “artist-worker” was meant to represent something different, at least in terms of rhetorical positioning, if not always the reality. The worker was defined as one who strikes against racism, war, and repression. One who strikes against work (and can optionally throw his spouse out a window). In the 1960s and 70s, those considering themselves workers rejected not only the culture of capitalism, but all disciplines that could be easily fit within the territory of an office, a factory, and then, at last, the museum.
The institutional critique in the 80s, on the other hand, understood space as a battlefield upon which to set up a camp and draw up territories as something ultimately something to be won back. The effectiveness of critique was articulated as a loss of territory - of being invited to and then banned from territories. When, in 1985, Andrea Frazer first used the term “institutional critique”, she deployed in an essay about Louise Lawler titled “In and Out of Place”.
In spite of its rage towards institutions, institutional critique often suffered from incestuous fascination with all that is marketable in spaces. This was then used as a template that lead to the gentrification of working class spaces in Lower Eastside of New York City and then across the globe by a deterritorialised new bohemia. The 90s saw an unprecedented rise of independent art business establishments that, beyond the aspiration for collective action, proved to be an orgy of the entrepreneurial spirits. Radical collectives like PAD/D that opposed the deregulation and privatisation of Lower Eastside in NYC and urged the artist to stick by the local residents were themselves evicted from their space. The archive of social political they have left behind is now ironically housed at the MoMA.
Same template that saw a proliferation of mock institutions, especially in the Eastern Europe and across the horn of Africa which saw a mass collapse of state in the 90s.
If in the 80s the Guggenheim banned work by Daniel Buren and Hans Haacke for their ideas, today, it would scarcely look twice at art that didn’t occasionally give the middle finger to the institution. After all, contrary to Sholette, who still claims institutions fear direct individual criticism from the artists there is no longer a widespread belief among the gate-keepers that anything an artist could say would meaningfully threaten the institution.
A self-reflective awareness has become the marker of a certain concrete stability for cultural institutions that wanted to identify as progressive just enough to be considered central to artistic discourse in the age of network capitalism. To be criticised was (and is) is to be worthy of attention, and, thus, to be regarded as desirable, which in the terms dictated by the attention economy, is much better than to be perceived as merely good. Consequently, the most striking element about “spatial art” that emerged in the 90s was and remains its scale, both in literal and metaphorical terms.
Returning to her idea text twenty years later, Fraser rather feebly acknowledged that the artists who once showed such promise in critical practice could not work - nor think - outside capitalism. And that in mimicking the institutions they critiqued they have become institutions themselves. In 2005 she wrote:
just as art cannot exist outside the field of art, we cannot exist outside the field of art, at least not as artists, critics, curators, etc. And what we do outside the field, to the extent that it remains outside, can have no effect within it. So if there is no outside for us. With each attempt to evade the limits of institutional determination, to embrace an outside, we expand our frame and bring more of the world into it. But we never escape it.
In 2020, when artists have to double as their own holding companies, when “anti-capitalism” vocabulary is the stuff of clickbait and memes, even the disappointment with the post-modernist discourse of the “third way” sounds like something from ancient history why did anyone ever think that would work? Fraser’s pessimism seems like the only logical response to developments in reality. At the time, however - 2005 - she was accused of defeatism.
In “Institute Practice Fleeing, Instituting, Transforming“ - written in response to Fraser’s bleak assessment - Gerald Rauning agreed with her diagnosis, but encouraged the artists to let go of the childish notions of being “outside” and to work pragmatically within the space provided by the crooked timber of institutions, politics, and the global economy instead of despairing over the totality of capitalism, Rauning writes:
In Andrea Fraser's depiction, yielding to a discursive self-limitation, which only just allows reflecting on one's own enclosure. Contrary to all the evidence of the manifold effectivity not only of critical art practices throughout the entire 20th century, she plays a worn-out record: art is and remains autonomous, its function limited to the art field.
What is needed, therefore, are practices that conduct radical social criticism, yet which do not fancy themselves in an imagined distance to institutions; at the same time, practices that are self-critical and yet do not cling to their own involvement, their complicity, their imprisoned existence in the art field, their fixation on institutions and the institution, their own being-institution.
While Rauning’s diagnosis of our fixation with space are apposite, he does not offer an idea that goes beyond the practice of marking territory through finding new means of escape. Nor does he challenge the oversimplified notion of escape as a path to a manifestation of a critical self. Indeed as soon as the outside was recognised as unstable, any possible doubt over what defines “critical” (that which may have led to constructive ideas) was mitigated by way of the tape, a spatial territorialising.
The artist-worker continued discourses often by means of the arsenal of tools provided by so-called “identity politics”. The vestiges of institutional critique on the other hand dove deeper into the role of artist-researcher and was split between the proponents and opponents of acceleration and inoperativity - polemics on the subjects were often published by e-flux side by side in the artworld equivalent of the New York Times’ opinion page..
Until at least 2001, the network capitalism accelerationism that succeeded the entrepreneurial orgy was warmly embraced by most as a tool for remapping communities and creating new geographies. The co-autonomous productions of high-connectivity were disguised as an expansion of intimacy and culture in societies that, by that point, had already disintegrated. The compressed mode of production was potentially inspired by communicational necessity, but it was driven by technologies designed for compressing and ‘hacking’ temporalities.
The techno-optimism of the 90s didn’t exactly miss the eradication of temporal boundaries; it encouraged it, but even the more ardent supporters of accelerationism seem to have been caught off-guard when, instead producing spaces of new temporalities, the network literally imposed central Swatch time. Tiziana Terranova explains in Network Culture that "in 1998, Swatch corporation decided to introduce some standards into the chaotic tangle of Internet culture – a world where successive waves of global netsurfers would crowd chatrooms and online gaming sites, meeting and parting at the intersection of overlapping time zones, gathering as if they were passing down the torch of a sleepless, always up and on networked planet.”
Steadying the supply of all that is extra into a rhythmic, controlled, and uninterrupted flow was the way for the market to capitalise on the existence of the rhythmic mass itself, bypassing the value of whatever is being produced altogether. Someone was always awake at all hours of the Swatch o’clock, and the business cartel could feed on that kind of stability. By the time the culture circuit had noticed that spaces were no longer closed, that buildings and institutions no longer slept (and, consequently, that the people who kept them running also no longer slept) the creative class, much as the historic working classes, were living inside the same infinite repetition loop as their corporate counterparts, generating unrequited archives of over-productivity.
And it is this through this abolition of time zone differences, the abolition of sleep, Swatch Time has eradicated many complex and codependent circadian and circa tidal rhythms that give all breathing beings an axis.
This loss of circadian rhythms, the phenomenon that gives human and other-than-human beings some clarity over their position in time, and, thus, their relationship to space. The loss of circadian rhythms has meant in a sense a loss of home - not as a territory with an address, although that wouldn’t hurt - but a sense of home from which we could be sufficiently unhomed to be able to explore, retreat, escape, and return to. This is to me much more like breaking down than breaking through a conceptual scaffolding for formal the accelerationist movement of the 90s - borrowed from Deleuze and Guattari via R.D Laing.
“Of the Refrain”, written over 30 years ago, outlines the fragility of a territory: “a mistake in speed, rhythm, or harmony would be catastrophic because it would bring back the forces of chaos, destroying both creator and creation.” Living on Swatch Time deprives us of even the ability to distinguish the nature of a mistake in speed or rhythm - our own, human that is, or technological - which results in the eradication of all distance and differences. The politics of the emerging data regime lies in the uniformity of speed at which transcoding occurs between one milieu and another.
Deccelerationism, deliberate inoperability, occlusion, and infinite resignation as the only political protest against the current conditions offer valid and necessary ripostes to accelerationists’ morbid fascination with disaster capitalism, and offer nourishing materials with which to think. As Mieville points out, “saying no” is the only utopia we can conceive of today.
Yet neither the act of slowing down nor of withdrawal - whether nihilistic or methodical - accounts sufficiently for the difference between speed and rhythm, nor the difference between rhythm and topological and infrastructural time, a distinction much ignored by the accelerationists in envisioning the “terrible event” that would allegedly level the global playing field. Flint, Michigan, for example, may very well exist simultaneously on Universal Swatch Time and in something like 1975. And if the San Francisco artists call for the movement to reoccupy the streets, a dead capital than few things are more critical for a Detroit artist than a white cube studio space. The artists in Kiev Ukraine wouldn’t need to do anything that would be considered critical in Berlin, one exhibition on feminism would be enough to shut down an institution that had at its peak aspired to be recognized as European. You couldn’t go into the future slower if they were to walk there by foot and yet all of the people scattered between different topologies can usually be found updating their identity pages according to the rhythm prescribed by twitter and facebook.
Topologically, the terrible event is far less an event than a perpetual, ongoing, and cyclical crisis, one we can no more avoid by universal slowdown than we can fly past by speeding up.
And the brazen contempt for new technologies expressed in deterministic tones in so much of the deccelerationist thought puts it at odds with feminist theories which have long since posited a tripartite interconnectivity between women, animals, and technology.
Identity politics on the other hand - the last vestige of spatially-centred tradition— understands the concept of veiled misogyny and topological time all too well, but it does not at this time offers a sufficiently viable proposal against the temporal colonialism be it either through the expansion of the sovereign power, or self-emancipation.
The dark matter politics for me, the opacity the lack of fixed identity, the elusiveness of an individual, the endarkment really incorporates the interests and problems of all identity groups as much as those of the “silent majority” but it still situates the question in spatial terms, even as it takes the question of space onto a universal and intergalactic and algorithmic domains.
What if instead of inventing speculative communities and the universal, abstract streets as space, we explore the way rhythms can be understood, captured, and altered, a continuity a perceptual and psychological geography that is defined primarily through temporal, rather than the dimensional; a perceptual geography as a mobile transit zone where cultural capital is reconfigured, suspended, or extracted before it reenters or disappears from the swirling circuits.
I wonder whether we can draw a little from each of these discourses to develop the collective politic of idiorhythms for and within dark matter. A cacophony of metronyms each attuned to the shade of black in the universe.
I wonder if we bracket the artist as a class, and make an effort to answer instead what and when is a “room of one’s own” in the universal terms for the perpetually connected, for the forcibly or wilfully uprooted and perpetually mobile, for those whose molecular presence is demanded in multiple spaces at once.
Such exercise should not be limited to the futile attempts for reinventing a space of the good life, nor a shift towards acquiring visibility by differentiating from the mass of content producers through the deliberate presence of absence. It would be a cyclical dance with eyes closed unfolding the future, becoming scattered in its potentialities, producing meaninglessly gratuitous objects as acts of irreverent temporal interruption. And then entering this future with eyes wide open, discarding everything, emptying time and paying attention closely. Repeat again creating a difference, filing up time, emptying time. This rhythm of the invisible mass is unstable in its very essence. The next section of this essay will address how and where this practice can be articulated and assumed.
First appeared in Maison Pop book There Will be Dragons in April, 2019