Stills Gallery, Edinburgh and CCA, Glasgow, 19 January – 21 April 2013
First, the obvious: curators Angela Dimitrakaki and Kirsten Lloyd have taken on a leviathan with ‘Economy’. Beginning a bloggy review of the endeavour creates marked trepidation: Marx only knows what order of apprehension Dimitrakaki and Lloyd created for themselves in conjuring this highly ambitious two-city show. With some 25 works in the main gallery spaces of Edinburgh’s Stills Gallery and Glasgow’s CCA, plus additional moving-image pieces in the Stills Film Lounge, plus numerous reading groups and discussion events, plus website, plus challenging bibliography, the ‘Economy’ project goes large on the theme, covering constellations of ideas around sub-themes, ‘work’, ‘sex’, ‘life’, ‘enclosures’, ‘crisis’, ‘spectres’, and ‘exodus’.
Theme and sub-themes together present more than enough for any curator to distill, display, and digest, but curatorial ambition for ‘Economy’ is cranked higher still because Dimitrakaki and Lloyd are intent on a guiding metamission in amongst it all, viz: to effect empathy with ‘economic others’. ‘Economy puts forward the view that since the 1990s what we have been witnessing is the proliferation of economic “others” rather than cultural ones.’ This leitmotiv is honoured across the project, and the two venues forward ideas and provocations which shed different types of light on many different examples of human subjects variously molested by economies as nodes of a global network of nefarious capitalist influence.
Although ‘Economy’ might intimidate by dint of its supersize-critique, it does very well in the detail to register the fluidity of capitalism, and more importantly for cultural intellectualism, to register the fluidity required for progressive positions within the thinking and action of anti-neoliberalism. The upshot of this intelligent curatorial cognisance is an ‘exhibition’ which very powerfully evokes the forever-mutating spirit and structure of global capitalist economies at the same time as collating and presenting a dynamic range of creative critique that might in some way see and face down the polyheaded capitalist beast. And without the latter creative mutation of the critique, we understand, the former mutations of spirit and structure would move unchecked by the heavy-but-stationary weaponry of our static academies’ normative heavy-industrial capitalist criticism.
One juxtaposition, as they say, makes evident this cognisance to the curators’ credit. Courtesy of the TATE, Stills contains the well-known and simply brilliant image by Andreas Gursky of the ‘Chicago Board of Trade II’ (1999). The fluidity and rapidity of the capitalist economy sees this work by Gursky symbolising now a moment past: the twentieth-century traders pictured enjoy unwittingly the last moments of their sweaty Existentialist salad days. As Tom Wolfe wrote recently in The Sunday Times Magazine (‘Where did all our power go?’, February 10 2013), the ‘older, richer versions of the frat boy’, the Masters of the Universe we love to hate in films and hate and hate in reality have had their day:
Our manly Masters, still gorged with so much testosterone and dopamine, just didn’t get it in 2009, even when the most unlikely thing in the world happened: a bunch of weaklings, a bunch of nerds known as quants, shut the golden door flat in their faces.
2009, Wolfe reports, saw the first announcement in the New York press of the presence of a massive supercomputer, fed by backroom quants and boffins, that accounted for 10% of all trades in 2000 and 73% come 2009. Michael Douglas had given way to Michael Nerd. In not even two decades, Gursky’s world is a human-meat-based anachronism, for ‘what the Masters didn’t realise was that their muppets, marks, guppies, and chumps provided only the liquidity useful mainly to provide the quants’ robo-diddlers with numbers to play with, discrepancies the robot battle machinery could game and exploit’.
It is sometimes said of these Gurskys that they resemble Abstract Expressionist ‘all-overs’. When you think of the Baudrillard-busting abstraction from reality effected by the quants and their machines in a mutation of capital-in-the-world, ‘Chicago Board of Trade II’ might just as well have been the product of Pollock: the heat, dynamism, interaction, and physicality of end-twentieth-century trading is in keeping with an expressionism lost to capitalism’s inexorable vaporisation of the world and of itself.
The second element in the juxtaposition noted here is the five-screen video installation of Melanie Gilligan’s, ‘Popular Unrest’ (2010). Like a TV sci-fi mini-series in miniature, the five screens deliver five episodes of sinister and violent Huxleyesque goings-on in the world ahead as choiceless humans are coached to live for an omnipotent ‘spirit’. The soundtrack in one episode takes us back to Laurie Anderson’s haunting and prescient vocomusical predictions in ‘O Superman’, and we are treated to a similarly ominous subtext in Gilligan’s polished piece: capitalist economic drivers have, in the future, mutated to colonise the mind of the human entity, universally.
As if mimicking the words of a Master Marketeer, one of Gilligan’s actors proclaims: ‘It is the Spirit’s job to understand each of our stories’. Local desires are exploited in the Spirit’s logic, and we all have a McDonald’s in common. As with Anderson’s incantation, the subject is systematically treated for its potential contribution to the logic of the Spirit. The closing words of Episode 5 take some beating for affective pathos – man and woman report in sync that they are ‘alive only in spirit, in the relations between values’, ‘but at least we are together’.
With that pair of works, then, Dimitrakaki and Lloyd report on the advanced and advancing spirit and structure of today’s capitalist economy, and deliver with force, perhaps against all seven subthemes, the prospect of the Spirit of Economy emerging as a reified phenomenon of limitless presence. Now walk back to Mitra Tabrizian’s photo-work, ‘City, London’ (2008), and contemplate whether it is hubris or humility, or mere neutrality, expressed on the faces of the Boys from the City. Or, following Wolfe’s update on Gursky’s bear pit, perhaps Tabrizian shows us a museum piece, a record of human presence now superseded by the Immateriality of Spirit and Quisling Quant.
So ‘Economy’ is tuned in to contemporary mutations, and finds space for welcome creative, mutating critique such as Gilligan’s to complement analysis of the type offered by, say, an Angela Melitopolous, who relies on (to contrasting and good effect) more familiar tactics of Haackian informational declaration and exposure.
The logic at work in Gilligan’s imaginative centrepiece is the merciless logic that will subjugate the human in the service of economy. That remorseless subjugation is to be seen in Hito Steyerl’s ‘Lovely Andrea’ (2007), CCA. On one level, the short film offers a particularly candid and engaged version of Haackian truth-telling, taking us through scenes within Japan’s bondage industry, as we follow the artist and her translator, Asagi Ageha. They seek a bondage photograph, reportedly of Steyerl herself in her younger days. The backstory of Steyerl is augmented by Ageha’s – she is a bondage model, and bridges the critique and the culture as a human metonym of mitigated complicity.
The reporting of exploitation by greedy, fat men of young, innocent women is painful to hear and see, but we know of the avarice of the Spirit, especially when coupled with unbound desire. The film works for Dimitrakaki and Lloyd beyond that reporting because it bundles all of the subthemes, in a movingly unbundleable way.
The Female sees an exodus of sorts in life by being the maker, supplier and manager of her self as raw material, that way exploitation through work is avoided or, at least to some extent, owned. There is, however, no exit in actuality, and the crisis of Steyerl’s film, and maybe too of Ageha’s situation, is that the enclosure is self-made in the name of exodus, but the anticipated prepossessed self remains but a spectre.
Two things linger from this work. Firstly, the shocking indifference of one pornographer interviewed by Steyerl. His is an indifference based upon an attitude which would have the products of his work undifferentiated from any other offer to market – a triumph of capitalist dedifferentiation over ethical variegation. Secondly, the story that Mr Indifferent tells about girls being so distressed by the experience of modelling, that they would forego payment to escape the torture – the ultimate in preneurialism.
Artist Dani Marti, with ‘Good Dog’ (2012) CCA, addresses in his trademark hard-to-watch-but-must kind of way the fallout from a life subjugated by the Spirit. Akin to Steyerl’s conundrum, the exodus devised by Marti’s protagonist, Graeme, is enough to enclose him in a secondary dilemma. Graeme’s existential antidote to the crippling nothingness of his long-time job as manager of a bowling alley is to perform as a dog. Marti captures Graeme utterly exposed in his performance and there is presented a memorable crescendo with Graeme’s sobbing at the end of the play: ‘I don’t know if I can keep doing it any more…’ Graeme whimpers, addressing in that more-than-naked instant both aspects of his life as a dog.
There is too much more to say about the various works in this project, but to touch on Steyerl’s and Marti’s in the context of the Spirit Capitalism presented by Gilligan-beside-Gursky is to point to a conclusion of sorts to this brief encounter. Steyerl and Marti are deployed to show us with great candour some of the economic others who evolve from capitalist economies. What is most difficult for Dimitrakaki and Lloyd, forgivably, is to show us the exit points that might break the enclosure of otherness as well as the enclosure created by despairing protagonists who seek to weaken the grip that economic imperatives have upon ‘their’ lives.
Mark Fisher and Bifo Berardi are on about this predicament in the January/February issue of Frieze. Fisher puts the contemporary challenge in this way:
Never in my lifetime has capitalist ideology been weaker; neo-liberalism is now played out as a force which has forward momentum. Now isn’t the time to withdraw further from institutions but to reoccupy them. Both parliament and mainstream media are deeply decadent in the UK, Italy and many other countries, and it will take some time…before we could make a difference. But it seems to me that, if we want to recover the future, now is the time to re-engage with such institutions.
Fisher recognises a crisis of capitalism but also a danger that its enclosing and all-pervasive Spirit can live on in perpetuity ‘as a zombie’. Berardi’s response to Fisher might help me understand an exit possibly mooted by ‘Economy’:
Not only is political activism unable to change the reality of finance capitalism, but the mainstream political parties cannot do anything if they do not follow the automatisms of power…I think that autonomy is only possible when people become able to change their daily lives – by breaking the links of dependence on consumerism and exploitation, for instance.
If I can position Dimitrakaki, Lloyd and ‘Economy’ following Fisher as critical and creative ‘re-engagements’ with the institution, I might in the name of final symmetry position Steyerl and Marti as proponents of Berardi’s approach to breaking links.
The curators’ institutional engagement with capitalist critique is born of creative acumen, commended here: their critique is one not burdened by a preconfigured, barely-Post Marxist understanding of the for-and-against discourse cast list. But Steyerl’s and Marti’s protagonists, and all those like them, at the level of Berardi’s quotidian critique have work to do. By extension, we all have work to do.
But then, what advantages does one need as given before one can effectively exit the exploitation meted by capitalist forces and meted by the self as counter force? If these advantages (include access to Institution and Education) are dependent upon resources, from what public or private infrastructure will these resources emerge? It is not for ‘Economy’ to present solutions to these meta-problems of exodus, but the project is in itself a rich and rewarding break from one’s circulation as an agent of economy, and a rich and rewarding break from some of the intellectual traps which would consign a critique of capital to a second-hand market of ideas.