“It’s the Political Economy, Stupid!” – on the exhibition by Oliver Ressler & Gregory Sholette

Text on the exhibition “It’s the Political Economy, Stupid” curated by Oliver Ressler & Gregory Sholette, Center for Cultural Decontamination, Belgrade, Sep 30, 2013 – Oct 06, 2013.

Written October 25, 2013.
Published in December 2013 in LatinArt.com –  archived here.

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“It’s the Political Economy, Stupid!”

“Criticize the Old World in Content and Advocate a New One in Form.”

Metahaven in Conversation with Aaron Peters[1]

It was not possible for the occasional observer of art scene in Belgrade not to be genuinely puzzled and intrigued upon reading the invitation for the exhibition “It’s the Political Economy, Stupid” curated by Oliver Ressler & Gregory Sholette and presented in it’s Belgrade installment at September 30  in the Center for Cultural Decontamination (CZKD). It was announced that the promising selection of works – as almost mandatory these days most of which would come in the format of video – is to be introduced through the series of discussions and presentations by the artists, economists and activists, and it came announced with the following sentence: “While today artists normally avoid to work on the question of the crisis and capitalism in the world, this exhibition makes an exception”.

That got me thinking for a good while – and I sincerely couldn’t remember of almost any of the artworks I’ve seen shown in, say, previous 5 years or so, that are not concerned this way or another with the notions of either capitalism or crisis of a kind; but perhaps this is telling more about “people like us”, own social circles and interests, about a certain worldview, to say. Yet, after all, couldn’t it be said that even the celebrities of today are tackling those issues, this way or another, at least recognizing the problem insofar as their circumstances and capacities would allow for; and even the curators themselves will write that today “at dinner parties, in the bedroom, on vacation, we speak with the grammar of finance”; so what made the exhibition to make this claim of uniqueness? Lets give the exhibition itself a closer look before we return to this question.

With dozens of artists and groups presenting as many works in hours of video material, series of public discussions and the separate yet undetachable book with essays, it is not possible to even list all the authors and works of “It’s the Political Economy, Stupid”, not to speak of particular analysis of the works, on this occasion; what can be done instead is to enframe the exhibition as the entity for itself, and try to make some observations from this position – so singular works will be quoted in such function, and not as a part of a detailed overview.

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Upon entering the space, which did present the curators with a small exercise in “solving” its geometry and limitations they quite successfully managed to deal with, on the right hand side there was “Capitalism Is The Crisis”, a work by Oliver Ressler, it’s giant letters occupying most of the wall, juxtaposed with “We are the 1% – A small violent minority has ruined it for everyone else”, a work by Noel Douglas, that covered almost the entire surface of the wall on the left.

Although at the first glance similar in nature – beaming a direct message addressed to general public – the difference between the two was actually substantial, and it appears that it was precisely the space between these distinctive approaches that the entire exhibition used to construct its own worldview, own position and expression.

Ressler, with his work/statement, presented the audience with a thoroughly “anti-artistic” approach in regard to the idea of meaning, and what is in general expected of a conventional piece of art – that is, he committed the ultimate sin of displaying precisely and unambiguously what he wants to say and nothing else, nothing less and especially nothing more.[2] It seems that all the usual stuff from the bag of tricks the art can pull out to make a certain stuff “art” Ressler managed to conflate in these giant 2D letters, saying just what they say. This act is understood in its political effect only if understood as the artistic act proper, and precisely in it’s negation of and relation to the means of art and art as expression. In the light of now seemingly eternal art VS activism debate, no hasty conclusions should be drawn in regard to the reasons for such “anti-artistic” approach – it is precisely its lack of all the attributes of what a traditional work of art draws its meaning from – allegories, implications, “pointing to” – that makes the sentence “capitalism is the crisis” precisely the work of anti-art, that is, nevertheless the work of art.

Face-to-face on the opposite wall, Douglas presented one rather elaborated “street-art baroque caricature”, if it can be put like that, where quite a lot happens; actually, for anybody even remotely following the problematic of contemporary social unrests, it seems like there is a few months worth of recent headline news on the latest mischiefs and crimes of so-called “world leaders” in there. This is not art in a “narrow sense” of the term; it rather draws from a different visual setting, the one of street and protests and pamphlets, and stands in line with histories of critical press, the bourgeois revolution and later with syndical organization of workers and class struggle and various different emancipatory movements rather then what was unfolding in museums at the time. So, not a traditional art piece, this work was probably envisioned with a street rather then a gallery in mind – and from a standpoint that declares that there should be no difference between the two – but still, it does require one to recognize names and faces of important people from current national governments, to connect the corporate logos with the weapons to break dissent, it does demand a certain understanding of some particular information in order to be readable.

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And, enframed between the two, on the central wall opposite to the entrance, there was, as to be expected, a big cinema screen – that is, the exhibition itself. Except for the two artifacts discussed above, it comes entirely in somewhat unavoidable format of digital video that is being presented in archival succession of separate or mutually connected films from not one, but several screening places carefully set up in the space – inevitably, it seems, art and activism will always meet at the one and the same place, the one of media, or, to be more precise, in its distinctive news and documentary forms and formats.

What gives the entire new level of articulation to this ongoing project – that is, a series of different installments of the exhibition – is the publication under the same title[3], presenting various writings on art, capitalism, future, history and related terms of interest; in a curious development, this publication, including most of the artworks presented at the exhibition, one will not find freely available on the internets. This is perhaps one of the “expected yet unexpected” contradictions of contemporary production that reveals the problematics of complex circumstances of capitalism as much as any similar endeavor can do at the present moment – or, as Slavoj Žižek will put it into his essay that gave title to the entire project, and to this review as well, while discussing Kant, it is the principle of “obey, but think”.[4] Some, including myself, will strongly disagree in regard to the such application of the said principle to this and similar projects. Surely, there are reasons, and then there are reasons – but this is perhaps best left for some future discussion.

“It’s the Political Economy, Stupid” is communicating many different stories, but most are telling the similar narrative; what is recognized in the themes of the works presented, concerning what we see people do in films, are the various aspects and examples of the principle of capital provoking and producing art in various ways. It is a bit less about how art makes more capital in return, and in general it is mostly about what all this may mean, about the purpose and the result of such a feedback loop, and if a different constellation could be proposed.

So what we see people actually doing in most of the works presented? Besides some great dancing, they explore and wonder and stumble upon things, and are often organized in small groups or collectives, showing a strong tendency to get together. And this seems to be of great importance; sometimes they are being a subject of a social organization experiment, or undertake collective practices of self-education. They seek for answers by reading books no one seems to have read for quite some time, or just by looking  behind the corner in various different places around the world, or by contemplating the background and the intention of the messages of global media; but mostly they will seek the answers from other people, in the form of conversation or an interview. Occasionally they seem to get focused on something in particular, just to discover that they, again, should focus on something else, or even better, to try to find a way to somehow encompass everything in their pursue of truth; frequently they do seem lost, and the world in which they follow their mission seems already thoroughly fallen apart. The truth they are trying to discover and communicate seems like a message no one wants to hear. And it is all, in a certain way, one useful and true image, a good thing to see.

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Back to the forms and formats of the works – it would be just a repetition of a rather old argumentation in regard to what art is, and especially on what art may be, when it comes to form, to say that the form is the single most important thing to observe, as it embodies everything. The now already “conservative”, well established understanding is that it is precisely there, in the form itself, where all the traits of a social position of a certain art piece and the artists involved; it is exactly where the zeitgeist of one whole era and the complex intersection of particular human relations at the particular moment in time is to be found. One quite exciting examination on the topic was recently presented in the book of essays “Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction”[5] edited by Mark Bould and China Mieville. Published in 2009, their expedition to the future is trying to find answer on one important question, that is actually two: if the notion of art as it is being understood today as the product and project of a bourgeois capitalist society, is it possible that something like “art” can even exist in the post-capitalist society, and if it is, how can we recognize the possible proper and genuine (imaginary) examples, how art could be envisioned and described operating not in any but precisely in the post-capitalist future society? How accurately, if at all, art can be described in the works of science fiction, that is, in Utopian literature?[6]

This is where the things do get a bit hairy and a bit hazy, where different theories collide within and among themselves and with what we can imagine happening, what we believe must be true. In his text “Art After Capitalism” in the accompanying exhibition publication Brian Holmes, aware of the possible pitfalls in understanding anything once the exploration of the form is being set aside, contemplates the possible art practice of post-capitalist society as probably a more collective and more bodily, biologically inclined then what it was before; but then he ends up laughing at the very attempt, and we can all agree on the ending, that “laughing out loud can be good for you”. So is some dancing – this is why some of the works are to be noted for their outstanding ability to engage, not pursue, to explain but not to preach, and especially for to be properly understood as both art and activism: to be at the same time a commentary and expression and also a meaningful political statement. Such works would mostly be of a performative kind.

Watching “Espiral – A Dance of Death in 8 Scenes” by Isa Rosenberger offers both the spiritual experience and one of the more informative analyses of contemporary development within capital; also, it outlines one of the most elaborate approaches in mixing artistic and documentary expression. flo6x8 and “Bankia” from “Cuatro Trileros” series, besides telling about the particular problem and documenting the protest action, provides something that is quite rare in the cynical and somber present moment – a brief consolation and the sense of defeating defeat. For a refreshing change, it provides with incentive and confidence to act, however contemplative our subsequent actions may be.

The documentary character of the works of art, or of activism, is important – but a certain historical event is only possible to be reenacted, reinterpreted, to be “danced out” there and then in order to be recreated in the contemporary moment. No verbatim playback will ever be able to serve the purpose of understanding, or of translation, in the way Walter Benjamin outlined the principle.[7] So, if there are any clues in this epic detective novel trying to discover what something like “art” will look like in Utopia, most if not everything points to a kind of performativity, its collective aspect not distinguishable from the term and the form itself; but a lot of those involved in the production of this exhibition will not, at least exclusively, even claim to be artists, or that what they produce is a form of art. Paolo Cirio in his work “Loophole 4 All” outlines this ever-shifting position of identity in a very vivid manner, when he states that he is able to see himself simultaneously as the artist, hacker, activist, and finally as the investigative journalist.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2zRZJnz2m6M]

And, indeed, the news and documentary formats do play very important role throughout most if not all of the works. Even when not directly referencing TV news, debates and documentaries in their visual and spoken language (which more often then not is the case), most of the works will still have the structure of documentaries, including those that follow a seemingly different path – the one of (Brechtian) historical avant-gardes or the Godard’s idea of the politics of film and how to use it. The principle of “talking heads” is retained, even if the head is all of a sudden not of a human, but the one of the bear, or of the wolf, and this form of communication is important. The tool of direct speech, used and misused to shape humans into what we are, the act of addressing one in particular with a statement, opinion, that is, with a demand, but also the act that will verify one’s existence, is still the most powerful means to convey any message. Even Gods had to tell their wishes aloud, usually in a quite dramatic and spectacular manner, so to grab the proper attention; this hasn’t changed much ever since.

What did undergo a significant change, though, was the language itself; over time words and images got ever more complex, but not always in order to communicate the comparably complex ideas. Sometimes quite on the contrary, indeed, or as Alfredo Zaiat, economist and journalist would put it in Alicia Herrero’s “Bank: Art & Economies”:

“I challenge you to get rid of the prejudice, if you have it, that you don’t know about Economics. What happens is that a great number of economists and those who dominate the economic thought have encrypted the economic content, and in what exact purpose? So that the majority are submissive to a supposed specialist knowledge, and this supposed specialist knowledge is at the service of the economic power.”

What is said is a well known daily inconvenience of most of those exposed to TV and press, the feeling of being utterly clueless on the matters that should be of the utmost significance. All of the significant news outlets would always have a special slot allocated for economy and business reporting, precisely because of tremendous importance we have to place on that particular field of human activity; you may prefer sports to, say, culture, but at least the economy part of daily news, we have agreed,  concerns us all. And what happened? As to be witnessed on a daily basis, and for decades now, most of the dedicated reporting on economy is designed to obfuscate the matter entirely. [8]

This not-that-complex-as-it-appears kind of magic is more or less easily decryptable for whoever who decide to take some time to go trough the manual; and then, the double plot of the operation and its true nature is revealed, but without the moment of catharsis – after all the learning, one discovers that behind the “data” there is no “reality”, nothing to understand, no complexity revealed. That this is, in fact, a deterrent for those remotely curious, and a trap to exhaust those who show a bit more courage, and of course that most of those interested got it by now. The whole field reveals itself as a Potemkin creation to make economy appear as if following some “rules” and “laws” that are just out there, to disseminate the idea that the economy somehow “happens” as the force of nature, and that businessmen and experts are there to explore, to tame, to articulate it into something to be of use for the rest of us. As if the economy is some mine of vital-to-survive-stuff on a distant planet, and the selected few with immense personal capabilities will fight all the odds so the rest of humanity will benefit somehow.

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This is also probably the reason why we get so much of the exciting revelations in the form of the Kaiser Report[9] and similar entertaining and informative shows and blogs and all other media in their mission to “debunk economics”, but this is also why a question can be posed: if, on a daily basis, the crimes of those in power are being revealed in global media, including real names, real faces, hard numbers, and yet nothing happens, why art would present the problem through fictional characters placed in imaginary settings and then expect to make a point? One possible answer might be – precisely because of the power of abstraction to universalize, both in time and space.

“It’s the Political Economy, Stupid” will not (yet) make Wall Street feel uneasy; it does not intend to. It wants it to actually not feel anything, like all the things left behind, firmly buried 6 feet under – but it knows that it won’t happen today. What it does is trying to look at the future, beyond what was created and destroyed so far by the current principles of the flow of capital, and perhaps it even tries to enact something new; but, of course, it can not see past the dust of demolition still far from settling. And with this epic post-apocalyptic image in mind I want to leave you with both the exhibition and this review, but if you happen to pass by any of the installments of “It’s the Political Economy, Stupid” or if you are able to get your hands on the accompanying book of essays, don’t hesitate – it does deserve your or anybody’s time and contemplation. As we have learned together in this yet another occasion, from where we stand now we simply can not tell in which direction it will all unfold; but still, there are dreams, anticipation, there is hope, a sense of battles lost but war to be won. It is not very likely that in one of the many many possible scenarios – this would probably be “the artistic wishful thinking” one – the answer on the question being posed in some (unforeseen) future on what brought capitalism to an end will be “It’s the Exhibition, Stupid!”. But if that somehow happens, perhaps the recipient will have to check some future Google for what exactly this “art” thing actually once stood for.

Vladimir Jerić Vlidi, Beograd, October 2013

(parts of this text written in conversation with Jelena Vesić)


[1] A part of Metahaven’s book “Can Jokes Bring Down Governments? Memes, Design and Politics”, available at http://mthvn.tumblr.com/post/47975414145/aaronpetersmetahaven

[2] In such approach to the subject matter there are no allegories necessary to be revealed or understood, there is no related or produced or implied “universe of meaning” that stands behind the work, and no other knowledge or particular experience is required to understand the entire message but to be able to read.

[3] “It’s the Political Economy, Stupid – The Global Financial Crisis in Art and Theory”, Gregory Sholette, Oliver Ressler (editors), Pluto Books, 2013.

[4] “Immanuel Kant countered the conservative motto “Don’t think, obey!” not with “Don’t obey, think!”, but with “Obey, BUT THINK!” When we are blackmailed by things like the bailout plan, we should bear in mind that we are effectively blackmailed, so we should resist the populist temptation to act out our anger and thus hit ourselves. Instead of such impotent acting out, we should control our anger and transform it into a cold determination to think, to think in a really radical way, to ask what kind of a society are we living in, in which such blackmail is possible,” writes Žižek in his essay “It’s the Political Economy, Stupid!”.

[5] “Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction”, Mark Bould, China Mieville (editors), Wesleyan, 2009.

[6] A two short excerpts might prove useful for contemplating this question:

“From its inception in the early sixteenth century, utopia is imprinted by the character of capitalism, to the extent that this social formation, in contrast to feudalism, is itself increasingly totalising. ‘Utopic discourse makes its appearance historically only when a mode of capitalist production is formed’, Louis Marin states (though he seems to conceive of capitalism as an event rather than a process). The advent of capitalism, in spite of its fitful, uneven development, provides the fundamental conditions of possibility for the utopian form, which defamiliarises society insofar as it is able to totalise it and totalises it insofar as it is able to defamiliarise it.”

From “The Anamorphic Estrangements of Science Fiction”, Matthew Beaumont, in “Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction” (ibid)

“(…) how to imagine and represent the forms the arts might take when neither religion nor commodity exchange constitutes the foundation of the arts – specifically of music, that most abstract of practices.” (…) “Perhaps the greatest challenge for the utopian novelist is to represent how an alternative economic system might affect other segments of the social formation, such as the arts. One way to theorise the relationship is through Marx’s fundamental analytical categories for the analysis of any mode of production: the means and relations of production and consumption.”

From “Art as ‘The Basic Technique of Life’: Utopian Art and Art in Utopia in The Dispossessed and Blue Mars”, William J. Burling, in “Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction” (ibid)

[7] Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator”, 1923, available here.

[8] Usually, the specialist would exuberantly report something about “extreme volatility following the market signals after X-DAX reacted with skepticism on latest Euro Bond emissions and FTSE 100 indexed below the 5000 mark for the second quarter in a row” or similar jibbery fiction; this would be followed by the frightening and confusing images of incomprehensive abbreviations and constantly changing decimals flying all over the screen, and, when the stuff gets really tough, by the appearance of the guest expert who would absolutely petrify the observer with his magic of a sacred language. Both messages are clear – you shouldn’t even try, and these people apparently can, somehow, understand and intervene in all that serious mess, so whatever the result, they’re our last and only hope. Just flip channels or pages for a while, and confusing numbers will at one point leave you alone – you did what you could today, you sincerely did your best, the rest is outside of your capabilities.

[9] Keiser Report is a TV show hosted by Max Keiser and Stacy Herbert, in which they comment the latest headlines from the world of economy and finance in a critical and satirical, but “deadly serious” manner. A second half of each show consists of the interview with either a prominent financial figure or the analyst/activist from the world of economy conducted by Keiser. Available at http://rt.com/shows/keiser-report.