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Exit Strategies: Challenging Productivism in Contemporary Capitalism and Art

When you hear “exit strategies” what do you think of first? Iraq and environs? The neo-liberal mindset, its wanton growth-cures-all productivism? Or maybe, depending on the extent of your Napoleon complex, exodus from the intellectual bankruptcy of the mainstream artworld? This project seeks to imagine gangplanks out of contemporary warfare, capitalism, and art, not necessarily in that order.

Conventional strategic wisdom dictates that once the Minotaur has been slain, it’s time to get out of the labyrinth. Either one follows Ariadne’s thread back out through the maze to freedom. Or, like Dedalus – mythology’s slapdash inventor of the labyrinth – one takes to the air, winging one’s way over and out of the winding passages. Art critics have long preferred the former strategy, prying their way to the heart of those enigmatic configurations called art, then painstakingly backtracking toward the solid ground of philosophy. Psychoanalysts have invariably opted for the latter, overcoming rather than resolving the problem. But today, something truly unusual has occurred: the labyrinth has not so much disappeared as it has turned inside out. More precisely – if indeed one can speak precisely and figuratively at the same time – it has taken the formless contours of an open labyrinth. Are we not lost in an open labyrinth, whose very openness deprives us of the means to verify or even apprehend our loss? Warfare, capitalism and art find themselves, in our era of globalisation, without any exteriority. This is a utterly original, and thoroughly paradoxical ontological fate: to be deprived of any otherness – of all that defined them in counter-distinction to themselves – immersed in seamless immanence, unhemmed-in by any without. It is in this context – which is moreover an absence of possible context – that it becomes imperative to reconsider exit strategies.

In the limitless field of the open labyrinth (no more a labyrinth than a circular square is a square – suggesting something of the scope of the paradox), the answer may be negative growth, a genuine challenge to the latent productivism of global capitalism, to the warfare that it engenders and drives it, and to the sort of thoughtless “art-is-good, more-art-is-better” self-evidences that underlie the ever-expanding artworld.

Can we not imagine a world in which the “coefficient of art,” as Marcel Duchamp put it, is tolerably lower? Can we not imagine reversing the artistic saturation of our world? Exit Strategies proposes to experimentally apply the political-economic discourse of radical ecology to art. For if the theory of negative growth – or “degrowth” as it is sometimes called – is a genuine challenge to global capitalism, it may also be useful in accompanying the emergence of a new paradigm outside the institutional-market framework of contemporary art.

Without getting too specific here, the proposal is to attempt to learn to detect the unrealised potential dormant in the folds and pleats of the present; to decide if we want to make use of this potential for conceptual migration; to decide if we want to develop exit strategies. The great French philosopher of labour, André Gorz, has written of a need for “exodus”:

“We must dare to break with this society that is dying and will not be reborn again. We must dare contemplate Exodus. There is nothing to be hoped for from symptomatic treatments of the “crisis,” for there is no longer any crisis: a new system has been established that massively abolishes “work.” It restores the worst forms of domination, subservience, exploitation by forcing all to fight against all to obtain the very “work” that it is abolishing. It is not this abolition per se that is to be held against it; but rather its claim to perpetuate as an obligation, a norm, an irreplaceable basis of rights and dignity for all this very “work” whose norms, dignity and accessibility it has abolished. We have to dare to seek Exodus from the “society of work”: it no longer exists and will never return. We have to want the death of this moribund society in order that another may be born upon its rubble. We have to learn to distinguish the contours of this other society behind the resistances, the dysfunctional behaviour, the dead-ends which make up the present. “Work” must lose its centrality in the consciousness, thought and imagination of all: we must learn to cast a different gaze upon work; to no longer think of it as something one has or doesn’t have, but as what we do. We have to dare to reappropriate work for ourselves.”

The consequences of such a thorough-going critique of economicism, developmentism, progressivism are hard to fathom, which is why such proposals are well nigh inaudible for many – even for those who recognise that a new paradigm has emerged and that this time its contradiction is the finitude of the planet itself. What, if anything, does art have to say about such issues? The conventional artworld reflex is: Produce more artworks, more exhibitions to tackle this interesting problem! As if the symbolic economy of the artworld were not of a kind with the general economy that Gorz urges us to renounce. What if Gorz were talking about art? To give an idea of the kind of conceptual migration Exit Strategies will practise, let us conduct a simple thought experiment of substitution. Let us reread the passage, replacing “work” by “art,” and “society of work” by “artworld,” giving the following:

“We must dare to break with this artworld that is dying and will not be reborn again. We must dare contemplate Exodus. There is nothing to be hoped for from symptomatic treatments of the “crisis,” for there is no longer any crisis: a new system has been established that massively abolishes “art.” It restores the worst forms of domination, subservience, exploitation by forcing all to fight against all to obtain the very “art” that it is abolishing. It is not this abolition per se that is to be held against it; but rather its claim to perpetuate as an obligation, a norm, an irreplaceable basis of rights and dignity for all this very “art” whose norms, dignity and accessibility it has abolished. We have to dare to seek Exodus from the “artworld; it no longer exists and will never return. We have to want the death of this moribund artworld in order that another may be born upon its rubble. We have to learn to distinguish the contours of this other artworld behind the resistances, the dysfunctional behaviour, the dead-ends which make up the present. “Art” must lose its centrality in the consciousness, thought and imagination of all: we must learn to cast a different gaze upon art; to no longer think of it as something one has or doesn’t have, but as what we do. We have to dare to reappropriate art for ourselves.”

The scale has shifted – from the broader realm of labour to the more restricted realm of symbolic activity – but the logic appears to hold. In an era of mass migration, systematic conceptual migration may well prove to be a useful heuristic tool in envisaging exit strategies from the seamless immanence of neoliberal warfare, productivism and art. A compass in an open labyrinth.

Stephen Wright

 

of being post-curiosity & being deprived of otherness

In his rather dismissive review of the Instanbul Biennale, the New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl quoted Vasif Kortun, the curator of two past Istanbul Biennials. Schjeldahl was surprised to hear Kortun say: “Biennials have consumed their role. Their job is done. [That job was to publicise cultures outside of Western Europe and America.] It has become almost impossible to not know what’s going on in the world. We’re post-curiosity”.

Are we really post-curiosity? And who is this “we”? I think it’s an interesting provocation that Kortun makes, as it’s targetted at a certain segment of the international art world. It’s an exaggeration, which cuts and makes a point. But it also misses, when applied too generally. Does one really want to apply this comment to a region, say, like Southeast Asia? How many artists, writers and curators here — even limiting it to just the ones who do interesting, significant work — would say that they are no longer curious about what is happening within their region, no longer curious about what other artists are doing, are no longer curious about what happens in Europe, in Africa, or China? Not all of us are tired of the biennale circuit yet, notwithstanding the fact that this September alone, East Asia has seven shows opening within the month. We might be overloaded with spectacle, but we’re hardly saturated in discourse. We don’t know the half of what’s going on, even in our own backyards.

So, Stephen, when you say, “Warfare, capitalism and art find themselves, in our era of globalisation, without any exteriority. This is an utterly original, and thoroughly paradoxical ontological fate: to be deprived of any otherness ...”, I have to question that.

Are we really deprived of otherness? Who is this “we”. And isn't it less a case of ontology than epistemology? That is, “we” -- a certain privileged "we", armed with speech and all sorts of access to information -- perceive we are deprived of otherness, whether or not the “rest of us” are actually otherless or not. It’s very easy to find others/subalterns/et cetera in our midst, I would have thought.

 

curiosity killed the catapult

I'm not sure we really disagree. It's not like it's never occurred to me that there's an epistemological crisis: the obscene disparities in what you circumspectly call "access to knowledge" make writing a sentence in the idiom of global hegemony, formulating an argument in the the terms of what is called rational discourse, or how about taking part in the workshops of the self-proclaimed worldart elite throw tentacular parentheses around any claim to truthfulness... That crisis is preceded by another unresolved axiological crisis: who is the arbiter of value (I suspect that is what you're getting it by apostrophizing the "we")? When I say art is facing an ontological crisis, I'm just describing the facts on the ground: though not everything is art, nothing is excluded in an a priori way. That has nothing to do with epistemology, except from a very provincial perspective (only people who want to exclude other people's candidacy to art recognition can argue that something is prima facie NOT art). That's a problem of being, not knowing.

Beyond that, I'm a pretty curious fellow. If I am a staunch enemy of cultural diversity, it's only because I despise culture, not diversity! I think seven or even seventy biennales is sociologically interest-deserving. So refuting Vasif Kortun as a way of refuting me is, well, as you put it, "rather easy... I would have thought."

When Marx wrote Capital, only 1 worker in 6 in France worked in a workplace employing more than 4 workers; in Britain, the most industrialised nation of the day, it was only 1 in 4. That does not diminish his insight regarding the trend... Let's not wait until there is empirical evidence to analyze trends. And above all, let us never stoop to implicit victimology to discard arguments.

 

“We” who are curious catapults

I guess what led me to emphasise “epistemology” over “ontology” in my reply to your blog entry on “exit strategies” was the slip that I made, my slip not yours, in reading the “we” in the following passage of yours -- “Are we not lost in an open labyrinth, whose very openness deprives us of the means to verify or even apprehend our loss?”, which you then follow with: “Warfare, capitalism and art find themselves, in our era of globalisation, without any exteriority. This is an utterly original, and thoroughly paradoxical ontological fate: to be deprived of any otherness ...”

Yes, I agree that “art” is without any exteriority, ontologically speaking. It’s not a question of human agency or perception, about artists, citizens, etc., but a structural comment about art today. Art is without otherness, not society -- society is riddled with otherness. Yes, I now see what you’re saying. So it was wrong to use Kortun to implicate you; Kortun was specifically talking about arts audiences as a “we”. Your “we” does indeed refer to all of us on the planet, since you are making observations about the very structure of the situation.

This confusion between “art” and “humans” has happened at least another time in our discussions on this website, when Thomas and you were debating the matter of “authorship” in his blog entry on “contemporary art, ‘now’ or ‘never’ ...”. Thomas thought you were talking about artists, when he was talking about art (the blog entry & comments are here http://northeastwestsouth.net/site/node/117).

 

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