Amy, Drew, and John, what wonderfully thoughtful and clarifying posts! It’s reassuring to see how evoking art’s relation to politics retains its power to excite, unite, and divide us. All three of you point to ways repetition has positive, productive results.
I’m on board with the spirit of everyone’s thoughts. None of us has questioned the notion that today the art world participates in and even strengthens the larger social system that John has abbreviated to DSC, even if in the overall scheme of things it is a rather minor and loose part. Of course most artists don’t want to strengthen the existing order. But art’s incorporation into this not adequately legitimized and insufficiently fair system, in which the state, the market, and the democratic political process are increasingly tightly integrated, has changed the force and meaning of the concepts and discourses that art lives by. This matters because, at some level, directly or indirectly, serious art must engage the system. It is too thoroughly socially mediated to have a pure relation with what is simply existential.
We are all familiar with the idea that the language of newness is exhausted. But it’s exactly the same, and for pretty much the same reasons, for the languages of otherness, of transformation, of infinite potentiality, of “beyond,” of liberation, of revolution, of open futurity, and so on.
It’s not that concepts like these don’t still have ethical force. They inspire artists and help make sense of the experiences that artists create for themselves and others. And we who love art often want radical otherness. We want to be transformed; we court experiment; we want exhilarating pathways into or out of the everyday; we want to hook into untapped capacities in ourselves and the world. We look for them, and occasionally find them, in art or music or literature.
The problem is that repetition rules in this realm as well. These desires and the language that expresses and structures them have become increasingly contained and instrumentalized. Even the critique of art’s critical and innovatory power is secondhand.
After our exchanges here, I’m thinking that perhaps a new politics of art is emerging. On one side are those who believe that today art remains a vehicle for emancipations and transformations. On the other side are those who believe that the (always-already politicized) vocabulary of newness, transformation, liberation, and so on should be jettisoned, not just because it’s exhausted but because it’s in the service of its antagonists. The art of haunting and repetition is, in this view, a sign that the time for such jettisoning may be ripening.
But of course, when (if ever) that time does ripen, when we are delivered out of our thirst for radical reinvention, for utopian moments of conversion and intensification, what we won’t see is anything new, anything different, anything other, anything more free, exactly, because newness and different and otherness and freedom are today what legitimize art and, beyond art, fuel endgame capitalism itself.
So what will we then see in that future we have forgotten?
In the spirit of Amy’s reading of Tacita Dean, and to come full circle on the theme of repetition itself, I’d like to double back to how we might imagine sonic and musical analogues to the visual practices in Haunted and leave hanging the question of whether any of these ways of working offer strong enough medicine to shake us free of the imperial reach of the “DSC.”
From the blurred leer of Gerhard Richter’s Uncle Rudi (1965) to the stoic pose of Warhol’s mourning Jackies, “haunted” artwork induces its effects through a tension between the implied reality of a source and the surface disruptions of the artwork itself, which seem to gnaw at the very content they also memorialize. Contemporary digital and electronic music offers an abundance of time-based work that occupies this same melancholy position, which I’d describe as mediated stasis. The process of the music’s production arguably enacts the same relationship that animates work like Richter’s and Warhol’s: an acoustically immediate source (a voice, a guitar, a field recording, an object) is distressed, distorted, filtered, and transformed via software into forms whose warp and grain inflect the sources with a distinct layer of present-tense mediation that represents an aesthetic intervention onto the givenness of the real.
From Tim Hecker’s Haunt Me, Haunt Me, Do it Again to Fennesz’s Endless Summer to Bernhard Günter’s Details Agrandis, recordings from the most articulate practitioners of this emergent genre have sought to produce a longing in the listener for the moment of origin precisely by enacting a dislocating, dematerializing break (signaled by the formal newness of their technology). The deadness of the vanished acoustic moment and the now of software reify each other on opposite sides of a dividing line.
But it’s a wire we are all perched along: the computer as archive of dead time, ever “new” in its repetitive sameness. As the transfer from cell phone camera to Facebook page quickens the turnover time of what Henri Lefebvre termed “the media day,” we are all engaged in the serial digital memorialization of increasingly morcellated present time. But our digital tools of self-expression and self-representation turn out actually to level differences among individuals and extend networks of corporate surveillance. Which means that we are less and less able to sense the leer of Richter’s uncle or the shimmer of Fennesz’s digitally distressed reveries as “uncanny”—they get less different from our own self-mediating moment every day.
The ghosts are here to stay. Work that cranks up the distortion inherent in the medium itself might be a way to move past this dynamic: a kind of hypertrophied formalism that pushes surface disruptions to the point that we stop longing for the lost moments buried beneath them. It’s not enough to tear an escape hatch in the fabric of the DSC, but it may be that a symptomatic exacerbation of the inherently “lossy” nature of digital mediums might have an astringent force, and make us, at the very least, less trusting of our own tools and less intoxicated by their memorializing power.
One thing I like about this Forum is that, like conversation, it can shift direction in a second. We can probe one direction and then, the waiter comes, the phone rings, we drop it, and we’re off somewhere else.
Simon ends his third post wickedly with the question, “So what will we then see in that future we have forgotten?
It seems to me that Amy and Drew have already, in their respective posts #2, offered up some powerful and related examples of works that today embody the value of art in recovering the future.
Amy’s beautiful evocation of Tacita Dean’s Merce Cunningham performs STILLNESS . . . pinpoints how the construction of Dean’s piece incorporates the aesthetic of Cage and Cunningham by compelling the viewer’s integration into the piece as random mover, and in doing so guarantees “that Dean’s reinstantiation of Cunningham’s choreography exists not only in infinite regress but projects into the future, however long that future may be.” Drew invokes free improvisation in music as a way to “sidestep our intuitive, pre-Einsteinian default model of time as a one-way street” and concludes that “improvisation offers . . . a future that we can claim within the present, right now.”
II wholeheartedly concur. In the future that is not the future but the unimaginable future/nonfuture that we shall now try to imagine, we definitely want to have aleatory processes and free improvisation.
And what else? I’ve got a few things to offer up.
One of the problems that Simon has identified is that not only are we “all familiar with the idea that the language of newness is exhausted. But it’s exactly the same for the languages of otherness, of transformation, . . . of revolution.”
To get around that, I borrow an element from another modernist master, William Carlos Williams, his dictum “Not in words but in things.” In other words, let’s not go around promising freedom, transformation, etc. We can’t because we know whatever we go round and promise will be snatched up. So the best thing to do is not help out. Don’t give any clues. Just do and make stuff. Here, along with the example of Williams’s poetry, let’s cite all the makers of quotidian movement: Yvonne Rainer, Simone Forti, others.
One aspect of the artist’s job is to confuse categories. In keeping with that thought, my other offering for excavating the future is the production of hybrid forms of activity that include both identifiable arts activities and elements not so identifiable within the same work. Mel Chin’s Revival Field (1990–) is one example. Revival Field is a “green remediation” sculpture comprised of plantings on heavy-metal-contaminated soil, with the plants eventually removing the metals and restoring the earth. Another example, the Center for Urban Pedagogy, creates exhibitions, books, tours that are equally art and public-policy interventions. Other artists, here and abroad, are creating performance events in which discourse (political, civic, etc.) is fully integrated into/interrupts the artwork.
Aleatory, full-on improvisational, quotidian, art/nonart hybrids: a few clues to a future we hopefully would recognize if we stumbled upon it.
Simon, thank you for your kind words. As the Forum comes to a close, I do regret that by and large the discussion has been ahistorical. If one constructs the place from which one speaks historically, the problem of terms such as “newness,” “originality,” even “repetition,” shifts dramatically no matter whether one is an artist, a critic, or a theoretician.
On to art and the underlying social structure. Since my focus is both art cinema and mass-entertainment cinema, I live between several worlds. The economics and the deployment of power differs in the world of movies depending on whether one is looking at Avatar or a Super 8 movie by an eighteen-year-old celluloid fetishist. And the entire spectrum of movies in relation to power and capital differs from that of the art world.
The Super 8 filmmaker fetishizes his medium in part because it is divorced from money and power regardless of its subject matter or politics, but he or she will have to take some cruddy day job to pay the rent. James Cameron, on the other hand, relishes using Rupert Murdoch’s $350 million to make a movie that blatantly says that the earth is a dying planet, destroyed by the military-industrial complex that Murdoch champions. But Murdoch is secure in his confidence that the masses have never been moved by a movie to revolt, and Avatar will return his investment at least fourfold, which more than ensures keeping Fox News afloat.
The dynamic of power and capital in the art world seems to me far more confining and even demoralizing for the artist. I was recently in the home of one of the Great Satans of the financial meltdown. He and his wife are collectors of contemporary art. One of the most prominent works in their collection is a painting that recycles an iconic image of class struggle in America. I cannot imagine what he thinks when he walks past it every day, or what the friends who come to his house think, or what the artist feels about where the work ended up.
The filmmaker who for sixty years has dealt with these issues with great intelligence and verve while producing works of ravishing beauty is Jean-Luc Godard. A restored version of his debut feature Breathless (1960) was released to acclaim last month. It was hailed by critics for remaining “innovative” and “new.” But by now Godard’s innovations in Breathless have been thoroughly absorbed into cinematic language. What have actually proved beyond assimilation are the politics of the film—his love/hate for all things American, which soon evolved into a more sophisticated critique of capitalism, culture, and power.
Godard’s latest, Film Socialisme (2010), premiered this year at Cannes, where many of the same critics who hailed Breathless the second time around found it tedious and unintelligible. Godard has made several iterations available online. One is a trailer in which the entire film flashes by in about four and a half minutes, as if you were watching it on DVD at 30X speed. Another is a program booklet that includes images and brief texts from the movie. On the cover, beneath the title Film Socialisme entwined with the letters “JLG,” is a familiar aphorism used as a subtitle: “Ideas Separate Us, Dreams Bring Us Together.”