While my focus these days is on seeing my two-volume project Forms of Abstraction into print (the manuscript of the first volume is ready), I keep getting distracted by fascism. One symptom of this is the essay “From Fact Check to Counterattack,” which is part of the Volksfronten reader published by Steirischer Herbst, and out now.The Popular Front, the broad anti-fascist coalition of the mid-1930s, was a unique moment of solidarity in European political history. Yet here we controversially use the plural “popular fronts”—thus dispersing and weakening its power. In the German version of the title, Volksfronten, the word Volk stirs up the darkest memories of nationalism and racism. They are not just memories anymore: today nativism seems to be very widely accepted, and identitarianism is found on the right as well as on the left. Adding to the confusion, any new consensus against the rise of nationalism today no longer defines its main enemy as fascism—populism is now the common foe.
What does that mean for contemporary art, which proclaims its solidarity with ninety-nine percent of the oppressed while still clinging to its avant-garde roots? Is the popular always populist? Is populism just a new name for fascism? Such were the questions central to the 2018 edition of the festival steirischer herbst, entitled Volksfronten for which this book serves as a reader.
The abstraction project is an account of forms of capitalist real abstraction, as articulated by artistic practices under advanced Neoliberalism. “from Fact Check to Counter-Attack” is one of a series of essays responding to the burgeoning backlash against neoliberalism, which may a continuation of neoliberalism by other means—witness the Goldman Sachs boys in Trump’s cabinet, or Alice Weidel in the Adf, or Rees-Moggs and Farage in the Brexit movement.
And yes, all things considered I think it is high time we dispense with euphemisms such as “right-wing populism.” This by now unbearable term has one again been liberally used during the recent EU election. In John Bellamy Foster‘s words, this epithet “reflects the ruling class’s ambiguous relation to the “radical right”—which, for all its supposed ‘radicalism,’ is recognized as fully compatible with capitalism.”
If it quacks like a duck, and walks like a goosestepping duck…
Grey Room no. 74 (Winter 2019) is out, and it contains my article “Gestural Study,” which discusses both the crisis of gesturality under industrial capitalism and the renewed importance of gestures in today’s culture of networked performance; it does so through a number of artistic practices and artworks. It was a pleasure to work with Grey Room again, where I always feel in good company (even if it happens to be an exclusively male company in this issue). Naturally I spotted a blooper when it was too late and the issue had gone to print, though I still got to correct this glitch (you can find out what it is yourself; it’s on the first page) for the version of the text that will be in the Bloomsbury Companion to Performance Art.
Both the recent two-part e-flux journal essay on nuclear aesthetics and this article are the culmination of long research trajectories; my punishing Protestant superego tells me that these pieces are among my better efforts, and that I may feel slightly satisfied for a change. The nuclear aesthetics essay will be the basis for a chapter in Objections, my next book, while “Gestural Study” will become part of its companion volume, Personafications. Together, they form the two-parter Forms of Abstractions. I hope I’ll get around to working on Personafications later this year, though no doubt the editorial process of Objections will eat up a lot of my time.
Image: Rudolf von Laban pupils, early twentieth century
Kunstlicht is a journal afficiated with the Art and Culture department of the Vrije Universiteit, where I teach. It is edited (rather brilliantly) by graduate students and PhD candidates. The latest isssue, on nuclear aesthetics, partly came out of a seminar I taught last year. I’ve contributed an introductory essay based on the recent e-flux journal essay.
The far-right conspiracy theory of Cultural Marxism is still in the ascendency, not just in the US or in Europe. Today, Der Tagesspiegel (Berlin) published a rather chilling exposé on the impact this discourse now has in Brazil under the neofascist strongman Bolsonaro. Due to a certain Olavo de Carvalho, the common tropes of Cultural Marxism (a term I use to refer to the discourse, not to the thing it supposedly denotes) are parroted by government ministers.
The first draft of my essay “Cultural Marxists Like Us,” which analyses the discourse and its performative agency, contained a reference to an episode that now seems like a portent of things to come: in 2017, some 40,000 Brazilians signed a petition against a visit by Judith Butler to the country, and the petition text teemed with Cultural Marxism tropes. Oh, and Butler was burned in effigy. Now Cultural Marxism has the power to shape policy.
Since the text had to be condensed for publication in Afterall, the reference to Brazilian Butler witch-hunt fell by the wayside. I have now uploaded “Cultural Marxists Like Us” under articles.
Arnisa Zeqo sent me some photos Stephanie Syjuco’s piece FREE TEXTS in the exhibition After Babel at Megaron in Athens: a central feature of this project is a collection of tear-off flyers with links to various freely (legally or not-so-legally) available online texts about authorship, copyright and open-cource culture. There is something delightfully perverse about sharing at times rather lengthy URLs in the form of paper tabs. The Athens version of Syjuco’s piece includes my essay “Cultural Revolution,” which later became the first text in the eponymous book. The link leads to the “Articles” page of this site. I sometimes get requests for PDFs of this or that essay; many can in fact be found here under “Articles,” where I tend to upload them with a few months’ delay after publication.
The second and final part of my text “Shattered Matter, Transformed Forms: Notes on Nuclear Aesthetics” is now online in e-flux journal no. 96 (January 2019). This is the penultimate chapter in the book I’m currently finishing, Objections.
In June 2016, I gave a talk at the conference Anton Pannekoek (1873-1960): Ways of viewing Science and Society at the KNAW (Rotal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences) in Amsterdam. The organizing committee included artist Jeronimo Voss, whose installation Inverted Night Sky was on view in Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam at the time. The aim of the conference was for speakers from various disciplines, ranging from astronomy to political philosophy and the humanities, to discuss both the political and scientific aspects of Pannekoek’s work. After all, Pannekoek was astrophysicist by day, and council communist at night (or possibly the inverse). Jeronomi Voss’ work looked into precicely this constellation. Unfortunately, much to Jeronomi’s chagrin, the attempt to bring together reserachers from vastly different backgrounds proved fragile and fraught, as any whiff of “continental philosophy” made some of the conveners apoplectic. When Stefano Marino asked me to contribute to a section on “Marx 1818-2018: Aesthetic Traces of his Legacy” in the Italian journal Studi di estetica, this seemed like a good context for the article version of my talk, “Council Aestheticism? Pannekoek, the Avant-Garde and Contemporary Art.” The issue is out now and the essay is available online.
Image: a newspaper sketch of the disruption of a performance of Tankred Dorst’s play Ernst Toller (Amsterdam, 1969), discussed in my text. And as for the title of this post: yes, that would be the English equivalent of the glorious name “Anton Pannekoek.”
The new issue of Texte zur Kunst (no. 112, December 2018) contains my review of Dora García’s retrospective at the Reina Sofia in Madrid, “Enjoy Your Sinthome.” Because my text turned out too long (what else is new?), we removed an opening paragraph that was not essential to the discussion of the exhibition and the artist’s work, but that gives a sense of the artistic context I would place her in:
The work and reception of certain Europe-based artists since the 1990s is marked by a curious condition. Neither marginalized nor canonized by the art market and its retained art historians and media, they navigate the messy and ongoing transition from the old public funding structures to a project-based economy, and use the proliferation of “art worlds” and various kinds of funding and infrastructure (public grants, residencies, prizes, teaching positions) to develop practices that survive, and even thrive, while still not attaining the discursive presence of (for instance) either first- or second-generation institutional critique. As they share a networked habitus without forming a group or tendency, I can only say that my personal list at the basis of this diagnosis includes artists such as Eran Schaerf, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Alice Creischer and Andreas Siekmann, Agency (Kobe Matthys), Sean Snyder, the Otolith Group, and Dora García. Most of them have never been given a retrospective; some of them may have problems with the format itself, and avoid it actively. This also means that there are few monographic texts on such artists, even while a veritable industry has sprung up around far lesser figures.
I sometimes feel that I don’t make enough of an effort to write monographic essays on such artists even irrespective of catalogue commissions, but reviews such as this small piece on Dora García can be one way of (partially) remedying this. Of course, there needs to be a good occassion: a somewhat substantial exhibition, which this one (its shortcomings notwithstanding) certainly was.
In other news: I assumed the second part of my e-flux journal essay on nuclear aesthetics would follow immediately on October’s first installment in the November issue, but due to the journal’s anniverary activities normal service will only be resumed in January.
Issue no. 94 of e-flux journal contains the first part of my text “Shattered Matter, Transformed Forms: Notes on Nuclear Aesthetics.” This is essentially a chapter from the book I’m working on at the moment: Objections, which in turn is the first volume of the two-parter Forms of Abstraction. The second volume will be titled Personafications. These may not be the most commercial titles in the history of publishing, but I think I’ll stick with them. Basically, it all amounts to the culmination of years of work on abstraction, both in the artistic sense and as capitalist “real abstraction” that (in)forms objecthood and subjectivity, property and person, commodity and entrepreneurial self. Throughout, aesthetic practice provides tools for thinking through the contradictions and antinomies of our actually existing abstraction.
Some seminars I thought in recent years at the VU and at the DAI were part of the work on the Forms of Abstraction project; this text, for instance, benefited greatly from a seminar I thought on Nuclear Aesthetics at the VU, which will also result in an issue of the journal Kunstlicht later this year, to which some of the students will be contributing.
Due to underfunding and understaffing at Afterall, it does not look as though the Art and Autonomy reader I’ve edited will ever see the light of day. The manuscript (which I worked on with a number of editorial collaborators and research assistants: John Byrne, Noortje de Leij, Jeroen Boomgaard, Kim Kannler, Lara Garcia Diaz and Glorian Göttke) was originally submitted four years ago, in August of 2014, and it has spent most of its time since then in development hell. This is not the only contribution to the planned restart of Afterall’s “Critical Reader” series to which this has happened.
The Afterall journal is going strong, however. The Autumn/Winter 2018 issue contains my essay “Cultural Marxists Like Us,” which examines a key feature of alt-right and neofascist discourse: the notion that a sinister conspiracy of “Cultural Marxists” has been brainwashing impressionable youngsters since the 1960s at least. Its origins are usually identified with Critical Theory the Frankfurt School, whose protagonists were conventiently Jewish. After all, it’s always a plus if you can incorporate The Jews in your conspiracy theory—and it’s even better when you have plausible deniability.
In his recent open letter explaining his withdrawal from the 2018 Athens Biennale, the artist Luke Turner describes having “had multiple white supremacists turn up on my doorstep—in some cases equipped with firearms—in both the USA and Europe, carrying ‘Smash Cultural Marxism’, ‘Kekistan’, and Confederate flags, and making threats to my safety and those around me.” This is a reminder that, for all its proudly displayed stupidity and its grotesque features, the Cultural Marxism trope has a potential to unleash real violence. These incidents occurred because of an anti-Trump piece Turner collaborated on with two others— including Shia LaBeouf. I don’t know (about) Turner’s work, and associating oneself with LaBeouf is asking for raised eyebrows and eyerolls, but this is immaterial: Turner deserves full support in the face of both physical intimidation and online bullying and trolling by some post-internet alt-right chancers. The archived tweets from the would-be Marinettis of faux-ironic neofascism, the professional trolls Daniel Keller and Deanna Havas, are their own indictment.
Given the curator’s terminally dumb “ANTI” theme (“ANTI is indulgent, ascetic, libertarian. ANTI invests in Bitcoins and detests political correctness. ANTI is a contra-establishment politician, a humanist, a creature of our time”), their reaction—with its nauseating characterizaton of the Kek-worshiping “meme magic” hype man Keller as “an another anti-fascist Jewish voice”—comes as no surprise. Their stance has been aptly summarized by the title of the Shut Down LD50 collective’s piece on Mute: The Biennial of Very Fine People, on Both Sides.