Gregory Sholette: Are you talking to me?

Interventionist Art in the Age of Enterprise Culture.
Keynote for “Truth is Concrete”,  21/09/2012

It starts like this. The apparent reemergence of activist art, political art, interventionist art, socially engaged art, collectivized art. Some see it as a return to concerns dating back to the formation of modernism. Others perceive it as little more than an artistic genre, a concept useful for organizing the next exhibition, or a means of freshening up this or that museum collection. But we know it is neither simply repetition, any more than it is just another aesthetic category.  It is instead a routine, even somewhat predictable upsurge of forces both current and historical, both radical and every day. And yet, this materialization nevertheless threatens the gatekeepers of the artistic canon who eyeball it with caution, hoping it is nothing but a minor detour from business as usual. For even pure repetition as Derrida once wrote “were it to change neither thing nor sign, carries with it an unlimited power of perversion and subversion.” Which is to say that if nothing else, the making visible of art’s social basis is dangerous, not because it necessarily presents some radical content that is terribly traumatic to the mainstream (that is seldom the case), but because its very presence directs our collective attention towards an ellipsis within the cultural narrative itself: a deletion where no break or gap is supposed to exist. This is also truth made concrete, and it is also an apparition emerging from within, as much as from below, and it helps do the work of structuring events like the one we are inaugurating today.

Part 1: The Concrete Untruth?

There was a time when a predominantly elite art audience preferred to keep the connection between big business and high culture conspicuously discrete. No matter how disingenuous in reality, private sponsorship of culture kept a reverential distance between the work of art and corporate self-promotion. For example, we might find a company logo prudently tucked-inside an exhibition catalog; or a brief mention that Mobil Oil had made possible this or that television performance; or the functionalist instrumentality of a bank lobby found its compliment in a monumental Frank Stella painting. We can take a measure of this managed aloofness between art and business interests by recalling the hostile reception that greeted Hans Haacke’s work in the early 1970s. As we know, Haacke’s project revealed a sphere of corporate agendas that were mostly at odds with the liberal outlook of the majority of fine art devotees.

Recall that Haacke’s 1971 solo Guggenheim exhibition was canceled because one piece documenting New York City real estate holdings was considered to be an “alien substance” that the artist had brought within the body of the museum (director Thomas Messer). It is extraordinary that so much has changed in so short a time. Because over the past twenty years the world of fine art has shed its aura of distanced autonomy from the ignoble realm of the economy –and it has been reborn as an upscale brandname in its own right. The precision of Haacke’s institutional critique not withstanding, fewer and fewer people today are troubled by the art world’s blatant affiliation with fashion, wealth, and power. (Naturally, I am not speaking of those of us gathered here today.) On the contrary, young people flock to art programs at Yale, UCLA, and Columbia University, knowing that they have a modest to fair chance of professional success, some even launching careers before they will graduate. (And of course many others incur tens of thousand of dollars in personal debt that will force them to become arts administrators, full-time studio assistants, project fabricators, website designers, and even art critics.) Several years ago British art historian Julian Stallabrass introduced the term “Art Incorporated” to reflect the art world’s domination by corporate capital. It’s a term that serves to update Horkheimer and Adorno’s phrase “culture industry,” which they used in the 1960s to describe the mass-produced aesthetic banality of the post-war welfare state. While the culture industry manipulated through acts of passive consumption, Art Incorporated by contrast – as Stallabrass tells us – operates through the churning up of “all material, bodies, cultures, and associations in the mechanical search for profit making.” [1]  Significantly the emphasis here is on art’s profitability, not on its overt ideological clout. Or perhaps it is that these two spheres have now totally collapsed into each other.

Despite the “Great Recession,” the past couple of decades have been, and remain extraordinarily bullish times for the art world as hedge fund operators now specialize in portfolios of contemporary art, and investment firms like Artists Pension Trust (APT) literally bank on a limited number of break-out art careers that will return hefty dividends to their mutual fund investors. In her prescient, 2003 study Privatising Culture, the art historian Chin-tau Wu reported that a spirit of entrepreneurship now dominates, “every phase of contemporary art – in its production, its dissemination and its reception.” [2] Needless to say, there is also a reward for corporations who support all but the most extreme types of contemporary art. On the one hand, the aesthetically progressive CEO gains a particular form of cultural capital through his or her vicarious identification with artistic risk taking. On the other hand, the imaginative free-play of the artist can serve as a pedagogical example for employees who, under enterprise culture, are urged to work creatively, just like artists do, by “thinking outside the box.” [Brian Holmes “flexible personality,” Eve Chiapello and Luc Boltanski “New Spirit of Capitalism,” Andrew Ross’s “No Collar Workers,” Richard Lloyd’s “Neo-Bohemia,” Angela McRobbie’s “New Culture Industry,” not to forget Richard Florida’s infamous term “Creative Class.”]

Reciprocally, the new entrepreneurial spirit of art knows no concrete boundaries as vats of chemicals, dead animals, copulating couples, even the site of political protest takes its turn as “art” within the framework of the white cube. Still, this marks another difference from the art world of the 1960s and 70s. Because though we may never witness a major exhibition of anti-war art say, sponsored by Dow Chemical, Siemens, or IBM, it is not inconceivable that Apple, Nike, Google, or perhaps Sensor Dynamics might be willing to bankroll such a project, promoting it through viral marketing and stealth advertising.

At such a moment old-fashioned appeals to the deep, transcendental meaning of art – its concrete philosophical truths if you like – are no more constructive than are calls to return to the principles of revolutionary avant-gardism. For if the former seeks to salvage a long- lost aesthetic autonomy, then the latter is incapable of breaking away from the sticky logic of an all-pervasive market place. This is why the appearance of a new wave of socially involved art today is all the more curious, even paradoxical. Often working collectively in small, flexibly structured groups, these artists attach their work to buildings, make things to be given away, produce wearable structures for street demonstrations, and infiltrate mainstream media and institutions sometimes disguised as business people, politicians, or even clever entrepreneurs. They create inflatable plastic shelters for homeless people, graffiti spraying robots, home testing kits for detecting genetically modified produce, and they design software for mapping and avoiding urban surveillance systems. Furthermore, most of these artists express strong anti-authoritarian tendencies, and many -though not all- operate on the far margins of the mainstream art world. And yet this new interventionist, social practice art has arrived at a moment when the political Far Right is ascendant, and the Left is weak, when labor unions are enfeebled by decades of concessions to neoliberal capital, and when free market hegemony has virtually encircled the globe. At the same time, the tactics employed by these new art activists including make-shift actions, guerrilla interventions, shifting identities, mimicry and camouflage, creative disruptions and occupations of the blighted public sphere, as well as the rejection of disciplinary boundaries, hierarchies, and divisions of labor, and even the gift-giving of goods and services and of course art- all of this could also be said to belong to the neoliberal entrepreneurial playbook that hinges on turning the traditional business model inside out and upside down.

“Now we have armies of amateurs, happy to work for free,” exclaimed Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine and one of the early proponents of the networked creative economy. He goes on to compare the new means of electronic production to the old brick and mortar version:

“Previous industrial ages were built on the backs of individuals, too, but in those days labor was just that: labor. Workers were paid for their time, whether on a factory floor or in a cubicle. Today’s peer-production machine runs in a mostly nonmonetary economy. The currency is reputation, expression, karma, ‘wuffie,’ or simply whim.” [3]

By now we are pretty much familiar with the notion of the creative class and the seemingly pivotal role artists play within this paradigm as anti-authoritarian but imaginative producers – or actually over-producers. But there is another, less obvious homology between the surplus army of underemployed artists on one hand, and people like Chris Anderson who share this anarcho-capitalist dream of a perpetual peer-to-peer motion machine neatly wired together via the internet.
What if it is not the alleged radicalism of artists that makes them such an attractive model to the priests and priestesses of the new networked economy? What if instead it is the way art as a sphere of aggregate activity demonstrates a unique capacity to mobilize its own inherent overproduction and redundancy? In other words, what if its not transgressive risk-taking, and scrappy non-conformity, and all that out-of-the-box rhetoric, but instead the way contemporary artists –including those who are visible as much as those who are not so visible, the ones who do the dishes and take out the trash- what if it is the way they manage to leverage their own precariousness and risk while collectively producing astounding levels of stuff – installations, ideas, events, even entire fantasy institutions. Then perhaps it is no wonder that some CEOs, sociologists, and even municipal planners look to artists (as a class/as a category) and see a nearly miraculous alchemical workforce for inventing new brands and gentrifying cities and saving capitalism, among other wonders. Of course the more down to earth explanation might be summarized by my friend Alan Moore who once wryly stated: ‘its has cost me a lot of money over the years to be an artist.’
Still, there are attempts to prune, delimit, and enclose any possible impurities and resentments that inevitably arise from within this sphere of creative over-productivity. And yet how does one filter social production without erasing its overall fecundity? To put this another way, how do you keep the magic P2P goose laying golden eggs once you have clipped its feathers or put it behind bars? Think of Wikileaks or the hacker group Anonymous, both of which have forced the neoliberal experiment to confront its own ideological limitations, forced them in fact to adopt legal and even physical force as content filters. But once again, is it some specific truth that is concrete, or is it as Julian Assange put it that some information is faintly glowing because of the “amount of work that’s being put into suppressing it.”[4] What sort of ontological status has concealment? And what about untruth? Is it also concrete? After all lies have measurable, material effects in the world. Think of the way rumors that liberal philanthropist George Soros secretly underwrites the Occupy Movement, or claims that a wealthy Russian oligarch paid Pussy Riot to perform in Moscow’s Church of Christ the Savior, or most of all the way disinformation is used to foster war.

This is as much a dilemma for the neoliberal imaginary, as it is for us.

No one would argue that social networks have shown themselves to be exemplary at amplifying communication, even making knowledge-power more transparent. But these networks are also very good at spreading dis-information. It is a phenomenon theorist Eve Sedgwick Kosofsky described as ignorance effects that are capable of being “harnessed, licensed, and regulated on a mass scale for striking enforcements.”[5] It seems the possibility of networked resentment was never imagined to be part of the neoliberal political model, any more than it was for practitioners of tactical media, or for the Occupy Movement for that matter. And yet resentment as much as untruth holds forth today. Sad to say, it is an affliction that emanates far too often from my own home country: the United States of America.

Recall the performance by US Secretary of State Colin Powell before the United Nations Security Council on February 5th 2003. Speaking of provocative videos: Powell presented a series of diagrams, areal photographs, alleged facts and statistics, but most disturbingly of all he pulled out that tiny vial of (replicated) anthrax and held it between his fingers to make the case for the invasion of Iraq. Untruth made concrete. It was not wikileaks (it did not exist at the time), but the UN’s own weapons inspector Hans Blix who replied to this viral mis-representation that Iraq had no massive biological weapons program, no “mobile lab,” and no “eighteen trucks” filled with anthrax or other toxic organisms. [6] Nonetheless, the bombing of Baghdad began one month later as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld chanted “We know where the weapons of mass destruction are.” Needless to say the WMD’s were never located. Powell later described his performance before the UN and the world as a painful blot on his record. And I suppose a blot is also a concrete thing, a material remnant of a bruising encounter with the truth. But what concerns me most gravely here today is that the political and corporate elites of the world have already decided our fate. Lazily lacking the will to deal with the current global crisis by questioning their own fortunes and assumptions, they will default to a familiar cure that goes by the name of der krieg, la guerre, viona, and war among many other words. It is a cure not intended for us however, not for the 99% or even for US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s so-called 47%, but it is instead a sacrifice to the god known as “the economy.”

To cite the 53rd entry of Bertolt Brecht’s 1947 illustrated poem War Primer:

Alas, poor Yorrick of the burnt-out tank!
Upon an axle-shaft your head is set.
Your death by fire was for the Domei Bank
To whom your parents are still in debt.[7]

The failure of the post-communist, neoliberal experiment should not become an excuse for more disaster and destruction, and if we do nothing else this week we should pledge to stand together against the growing global drumbeat of this age-old economic curative. Regardless if you think of yourself as an artist or an activist, or both at the same time, just as Brecht pointed out, we will all still be in debt after the smoke clears unless we address the malady that underlies the crisis in a concrete way.

Part 2: Some personal reflections on activist art: 1980-2012

  • Collapse of NYC 60s – 70s
  • Seabrook Occupation
  • PAD/D, GM, Carnival Knowledge, REPOhistory
  • Counter-Globalization Movement of Movements
  • Occupy Wall Street
  • Pussy Riot
  • OWS Redux Sept 17 2012
  • Swirls, Occupy Debt (debt trading), connections between Art & Labor

Part 3. Dark Matter

I have borrowed the term dark matter from the vocabulary of astrophysics where it stands for an unknown type of mass and energy allegedly making up over ninety percent of the universe. This “dark matter” or missing mass has never been directly observed, it has no concrete form or identity as of yet. Yet, according to the theory of the Big Bang this unknown gravitational force acts as an essential counter-weight to the infinite inflation of time and space, it is in short what makes our small universe of the 5% possible in the first place. The question is, what if the world of culture were somehow similar? What if some species of unseen artistic dark matter invisibly maintains the cohesion of the culture industry, or more specifically, of Art Incorporated?[8] Now this, my argument, is not an argument for the existence of some “authentic” aesthetic suppressed by the commercial art world. Instead, this shadow zone of dark matter is itself a heterogeneous assortment of practices and forms, some progressive, others reactionary, many of which collide and influence mainstream art while remaining structurally marginalized by normative cultural institutions. This unacknowledged art world productivity includes the army of professionally trained artists who no longer show up on the radar screens of contemporary art, and yet who nonetheless continue to support the industry through museum memberships, magazine subscriptions, educational programs, administrative positions, and assorted fabrication and installation trades. It also includes the non-professional artists whose amateur status provides a sort of juridical threshold for what is and what is not worthy of aesthetic evaluation. And of course this extensive shadow zone is headquarters to the precarious world of politicized cultural workers, like those of you present here today, in other words those artists who have exiled themselves, partially or wholly, within the folds of dark matter primarily for reasons of dissent and critique.

Separately the inhabitants of this shadow space – this missing mass – have little in common with each other. But looked at structurally, as the art world’s unseen gravitational pivot, they form a massive informal economy (in both the fiscal, and symbolic sense) upon which mainstream cultural institutions depend. To put a sharper point on this assertion, just imagine for a moment if art fabricators went on strike, or demanded an exhibition of their own work as payment for services? What if volunteers refused to serve as docents or help with museum membership drives? Or if art magazines were boycotted until they made space for hobbyists and amateurs? Imagine what would happen to the local art economy if this dark matter insisted on equal representation at The Tate, or the Reina Sophia, or the MoMA, and refused to attend exhibitions, or art classes, or worse yet, agreed to stop purchasing art supplies?  [9]

Creative dark matter therefore is neither fully contiguous with, nor symmetrical to, the products, institutions, or discourse of high art. And yet it is intimately connected with them. More significantly however, it is a zone of social production not dictated to by marketplace needs, but by personal, political, even eccentric fantasies and desires. We find examples of creative resistance that range from giving spontaneous discounts to customers, to the addition of secret messages to manufactured products.  One low-paid stockbroker even used his company access to a Wall Street phone system to create random fluctuations in market shares apparently as a form of personal entertainment.  Yet what remains unarticulated in all this is a larger vision of how such “unblocked” moments of working class fantasy might connect up with broader-based resistance to economic exploitation, racism, patriarchy, environmental degradation, and perhaps our most immediate threat, war.

If therefore one were to somehow illuminate this dark, counter-public sphere they would find no grand history of revolutionary accomplishments, but rather transitory moments of resistance, local insurrections, and a tangle of informal social networks where the free-exchange of goods and services count more than the accumulation of professional status. This is what remains marginalized by the contemporary art market (although as we have discussed, it is far less marginalized among theorists of contemporary business culture). Such counter-productive processes are simply incapable of being fully absorbed, not without undermining essential aesthetic hierarchies and the linear art historical narrative that supports them. Still, that has not prevented the art world art from trying, especially given the way younger artists are again interested in socially engaged art. However, there is another, more important reason why such informal creativity is being noticed by the culture industry: dark matter is simply not as dark as it once was. The very same communication technologies necessary for capitalist globalization have paradoxically permitted a range of informal creative practices to become visible, both to themselves as social networks, but also to the churning feed lines of Art Incorporated. Nevertheless, when mainstream cultural institutions try to incorporate transient forms of art, or devise terms like relational aesthetics to package it, the result typically comes off as so many frozen assets, so much art world real estate plopped down on the multi-billion dollar monopoly board where players have one eye on the game, and one eye scanning the next investment opportunity in the Middle East, or Eastern Europe, or Latin America.

Consequently then, what I am calling creative dark matter does indeed show up, if only selectively, very selectively, in a few official art histories, and sometimes even in museum collections. This should not come as a surprise. Artists and especially artistic movements have consistently intersected with this realm of social production from below. Nor would any mainstream art historian deny this fact in principal. What is not recognized, what cannot be admitted to by the maintenance crews of the high culture industry, is the degree to which not only the art world’s imaginary, but also its economy, are stabilized by the invisible labor of this far larger, shadow economy. While efforts to normalize marginalized or partially marginalized practices are inevitable, the aim of a radical art practice or art history is to place normality itself under duress by enunciating a space of critical autonomy, a dark matter space, which is never fully recoverable by the culture industry, and by virtue of that asymmetry serves to destabilize the cultural speculators of the elite art world. And regarding this possibility they actually have no option, because this missing cultural mass has already begun to self-illuminate. The archive of surplus artistic production is spilling open in every direction one looks.

To realize such a “history from below,” and construct another non-space and non-productivity out of this dense archive of dark matter, means generating filters contrary to those of the market, while simultaneously recognizing that any move towards self-valorized institutionalization is not without the risk of failure or worse, Paris 1871 and May 1968 two cases in point. Militant street theater, counterfeit corporations, interventionist research portals, knitting networks, pie throwers, ninjas, snake charmers, river rafters, amateur scientists, this emerging aesthetics of resistance may be no more than a minor art of attractions and marvels and tactics, and it may indeed reflect the enterprise culture of neoliberal capitalism more than we would like to admit: but a politics of sometimes overt and sometimes tepid acts of delinquency, a politics of occasionally bitter gestures of discontent, as well as “gifts of resistance,” absolutely must always impart a future expectation. And now and again, this other social [non]productivity appears to mobilize its own redundancy, acknowledges its own surplus identity of too much talent, too much labor, too much subjectivity, even too much sheer concrete truthful materiality–– and in so doing it momentarily frees itself from even attempting to be usefully productive for capitalism, or for Art Incorporated for that matter, though all the while identifying itself with a far larger ocean of “dark matter,” that ungainly excess of seemingly useless actors and activity that the market views as waste, or perhaps at best as a raw, interchangeable resource for biometric information and crowdsourcing.

The archive has split open. We are its dead capital.  It is the dawn of the dead.

Gregory Sholette is an artist, author, activist and an Assistant Professor of Sculpture at Queens College, New York. His recent book “Dark Matter: Art and Politics in an Age of Enterprise Culture” is a research into politically engaged artists’ collectives.

[1] Julian Stallabrass in, Art Incorporated: The Story of Contemporary Art,  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005)/

[2] Chin-tao Wu, Privatising Culture: Corporate Art Intervention since the 1980s, (London/New York, Verso, 2002), p 161.

[3] Chris Anderson, “People Power Blogs, User Reviews, Photo-Sharing—the Peer Production Era has Arrived,” Wired, July 2006; people.html

[4] In Conversation with Julian Assange, Part 1, Hans Ulrich Obrist, eflux journal @25, May 2011, unpaginated/

[5] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick,Epistemology of the Closet, University of California Press, 1990.

[6]   Feb 10, 2003


[8] See my essays “Dark Matter, Activist Art and the Counter-Public Sphere,” in As Radical As Reality Itself, eds. Hemingway, Leslie, & Beaumont. Peter Lang, Oxford, 2007; and “Heart of Darkness: A Journey into the Dark Matter of the Art World,” in the Visual Worlds Reader, eds. John Hall, Blake Stimson. Routledge Press, 2005. pp.1126-138.

[9] I realize that in nations where there is still strong governmental support for cultural institutions a museum boycott may be ineffectual, nevertheless it is worth noting that according to the Nationwide Craft & Hobby Consumer Usage and Purchase Study, 2000, seventy percent of US households reported that at least one member participates in a craft or hobby. Meanwhile, the total sales hobby supplies was twenty-three billion dollars that year. (see: Hobby Industry Association ) My point is that the ripple effect of an amateur art consumer boycott would force up the cost of such materials for professionals considerably.

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