Cultural Revolution/La Colonie

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As Futurity Report is making its way through reopened bookstores and online retailers, another edited volume has just arrived from the printer’s: Deserting from the Culture Wars, which comes out of the project I did with BAK last November, and which is co-published by BAK and MIT Press. The book won’t actually hit stores before October, but it can be preordered. Editing this volume sometimes felt like Achilles racing the tortoise, as it seemed impossible to keep up with events. Even so, as the culture wars keep raging (now with face masks being added to the arsenal), I think the book’s urgency and pertinence have only increased.

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One text is, sadly, a document of a bygone era: in his essay in Deserting from the Culture Wars, Kader Attia expounds the thinking behind La Colonie, the decolonial space he founded near the Gare du Nord in Paris. By now, La Colonie is no more; it did not survive the corona lockdown. For me, in the last few years La Colonie has been one of a handful of art and cultural spaces in Europe whose practice define and transform the moment. Kader and the team created and curated a montage of positions and practices that was more than the sum of its parts, and at its best went beyond the simulation of dialogue or confrontational one-upmanship. The whole thing amounted to a generative social sculpture that the likes of Beuys and Hirschhorn can only dream of.

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To help the team “open a new La Colonie space in Paris or its banlieue,” you can make a donation on one of the following platforms:

Ettore Sottsass and the Social Factory

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From the “apocalypse in slow motion” that is Miami, Gean Moreno informs me that the publication accompanying his exhibition Ettore Sottsass and the Social Factory is finally out. The publisher, Prestel, touts the book as a “revelatory collection of essays by leading thinkers in the fields of political theory, economics, the media, design history, and cultural theory”—but, in a kind of lateral dick move, they do not deign to name any of said thinkers. I suppose I must be one of them, as I contributed an essay titled “From the Imaginist Bauhaus to Olivetti: Ettore Sottsass between Proto-Situationism and Post-Fordism.” Sara Cattin provided essential research assistance in Italy, and equally necessary translation services.

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I’m not that frequently invited to write substantial monographic texts (and given the time to do it), so I’m very grateful to Gean for making this possible. I have no doubt that this book will be a remarkable resource. Gean is also the editor of the recent-ish Verso volume In the Mind But Not From There: Real Abstraction and Contemporary Art, to which I likewise contributed.

Images: The Elea 9300 computer installed at the Monte dei Paschi bank, early 1960s; model office with Olivetti Synthesis Sistema 45 furniture, Florence 1971 (photo: Gabriele Basilico).

e-flux journal: Performing Preformations

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The June 2020 issue of e-flux journal contains my essay Performing Preformations: Elements for a Historical Formalism. This is something of an introduction to my two-part book project Forms of Abstraction. The first volume, Objections, was originally scheduled for later this year, but this now seems to be exceedingly unlikely due to the economic repercussions of COVID-19 in the publishing industry. Oddly enough, while production on Objections was halted just as it was about to go to the designer, the long-gestating Art and Autonomy reader has now actually entered the design stage. Go figure. Another book project that is going ahead at full steam is the BAK reader Deserting from the Culture Wars, which we’re finishing this very weekend. As for Forms of Abstraction, I will happily potter away on it regardless, as far as I can make the time to pursue the hobby—that essential luxury—called research.

Texte zur Kunst no. 118: Natascha Sadr Haghighian

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As the corona crisis morphs into a wave of protest inspired by the police killing of George Floyd, in the US and beyond, the latest Texte zur Kunst drops on the doormat. The review section contains my piece on Natascha Sadr Haghighian’s exibition in Leipzig, Ankersentrum/Im Rücken die Alte Ordnung (he she they walked), which revisited the artist’s (or rather: Natascha Süder Happelmann’s) German Pavilion project at the most recent Venice Biennale, Ankersentrum.

The above image is a digital drawing from the series Tumult, which combines quotations by W.EB. Du Bois with images of competing press conferences (by the police and by migrants) about a police raid at Ellwangen refugee center. This particular drawing, with the battery of microphones not positioned before police officials but in front of a black void with the phrase “There was a lot of talk about us, speaking,” seems to have accrued even more emblematic power since I saw it in Leipzig several lifetimes ago, way back in February. As the storm of history intensifies, the project as a whole likewise only grows in relevance. The Ankersentrum publication (published by Archive Books) is recommended.

Rosa Mercedes

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Tom Holert is turning the Harun Farocki Institute’s online journal, Rosa Mercedes, into a vital node for corona criticism from a vantage point of visual art/culture and theory. I contributed a little piece (there’s also a German version) that references Jonas Staal’s Collectivize Facebook event at the HAU, which was of course cancelled due to corona. However, there will be a prerecorded introduction at the HAU’s livestream today at 7 PM, and the website is up and running.

The Social Disease

It was a singularly strange experience to be visiting the exclusion zone in Fukushima —with its checkpoints and protective suits—in order to visit the Don’t Follow the Wind project, and to be receiving urgent pleas from friends and family to return to Europe before all borders are closed and everything is on lockdown. On Thursday I arrive back at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, though this required a lot of phone calls and an assault on the KLM headquarters in Tokyo. In the case of some other European countries, return would already have been impossible.

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The Fukushima Daiichi disaster and the corona crisis have strange resonances; both are lessons in disaster capitalism and population management through a state of exception.  While wild boar rule the Zone in Fukushima, COVID-19 has spawned memes about dolphins “returning to Venice” stating that “we are the virus, corona is the cure” once again posit a seemingly unified species “we” in the manner of anthropocene discourse. Just like “Fukushima” was a capitalocenic catastrophe, so corona is—to detourn a Warholian term—a social disease that feeds off habitat destruction, intensive farming and air travel.

Neoliberal globalization was always based on a dialectic of borders and movement, of flows and blockages. When I returned home, Krystian Woznicki’s book Undeclared Movements was waiting for me, which open with a good analysis of the pre-corona situation in Europe. Even while clinging on to its ideology of free movement for citizens and goods, since 9/11 and even more so since the “refugee crisis,” the EU has intensified its regime of “deterritorialized borders” against immigrants from North Africa to its own inner cities; the border can now be anywhere, if you’re on the wrong side of it.  The EU was always a colonial project, all its bleating about noble values notwithstanding; as brilliantly reconstructed in Peo Hansen and Stefan Jonsson’s Eurafrica, the project of European unification involved a post-war attempt to consolidate the colonial holdings of the various crumbling European powers.  The corona crisis, with its closed Schengen borders, is a further intensification affecting those whom privilege has so far protected.

Various European countries and institutions failed to respond adequately (or at all) during the crucial early phase of Covid-19’s spread. Now measures have been taken that are both urgently necessary and deeply disruptive. Corona manifests itself in an isolationism that is the complete opposite of how Warhol used the term social disease: to refer to his constant party going. In the cultural field, exhibitions are closed and assemblies as well as publications are postponed. I realize that I’m not nearly as affected as those freelance workers who are fully dependent on the gig economy, but on a personal/selfish note, my (theoretically) forthcoming book Objections has been put on hold due to the pandemic’s impact on the publishing economy. I hope that Sean Snyder’s wonderful exhibition at Rongwrong, which I curated, can stay open at least for individual visitors, even if things look bleak for the gatherings we’d planned.

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While many forms of critical practice have more or less been suspended, the situation drives those of us in academia deeper in the arms of Silicon Valley, as we are scrambling to figure out which platform for video conferencing/remote learning can work for us (even while we, invariably, will end up working for them).

Anyway, having “made it back” to a country of—how can I put this delicately—ignorant and inconsiderate troglodytes, I’ll try to weather the storm here and keep working with my students and on my research. I hope you are well wherever you are.

Futurity Report

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April will see the release of the long-gestating volume Futurity Report, which I co-edited with Eric de Bruyn. Published by Sternberg Press as the first volume in the Counter-Histories series, Futurity Report was conceived as a critical intervention in a discourse that has swung from left melancholia to manic accelerationism. While challenging the presuppositions and ideological agendas of today’s neo-futurisms, our constellation of contributions refuses to abandon the futural dimension of history. Futurity is too important to be left to its hypesters and hucksters.

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Sean Snyder at Rongwrong: The Rembrandt and Ravachol Appreciation Society

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I curated an exhibition by Sean Snyder at Rongwrong in Amsterdam, opening on the 29th of February:

Sean Snyder’s practice frequently revolves around formats, standards and protocols—and their disruption. In February of 2017, while teaching at the art academy in Braunschweig, Sean Snyder came across a newspaper story about a drawing of a dog from the local Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum being reassigned to Rembrandt. With a brand name attached, this sketch now had an entirely different status. Linking art-historical to natural taxonomy (it was a drawing of a dog, after all), and to early Dutch capitalism and colonial expansion and appropriation, Snyder also took his class on excursions to natural history museums.

That same year, student protest erupted at the academy because of the limitation of student access to the studios in the evenings and weekends. Seeing resonances with late-60s protests, Snyder and his class began examining the 1966 Situationist-inspired Strasbourg student stunts and provocations, which included the founding of a Society for the Rehabilitation for Karl Marx and Ravachol. Ravachol being a bomb-throwing 19th century anarchist. Before long, an entity calling itself The Rembrandt and Ravachol Appreciation Society began using the Rijksmuseum’s online platform Rijksstudio, which allows “members of the public” to select and crop images of artworks and other objects from the collection, to make image sets and to download these materials and “[use] them in a creative way.”

In 2019, the museum invited such members of the public to submit their own artworks for an exhibition celebrating Rembrandt (Lang Leve Rembrandt). Among the 8,500 submissions was one by The Rembrandt and Ravachol Appreciation Society, titled (Im)mutable: Braunschweig Terrier—a proposal for an installation of vinyl stickers that would be free to take. In the online entry form, the Society noted that “the inventory number (Z 719) of the ‘New Rembrandt in the museum’s classification remained unchanged, revealing both the extent of the mutability of reality and the immutability of the abstract systems that govern it.” In a reenactment of the Richard Mutt affair, the museum rejected the Society’s muttley submission.

The Rembrandt and Ravachol Appreciation Society investigates lost images and the loss of radical ideas. Blending free association with systematic rigour, the Society uses standards and grids not to equalize and make commensurable, but to tease out resonances between the dissimilar. The Society links “lost and found objects” such as Rembrandt drawings, or the shells that were listed in the inventory of Rembrandt’s possessions, to “the shell game of global megacorporations.” If such corporations are the true artists and designers of the 21st century, branding and forming our world, then what would it mean to genuinely celebrate Rembrandt, or art?

On the Rijksstudio platform, The Collected Works of the Rembrandt and Ravachol Appreciation Society continues to function as a site for the extraction of materials which the exhibition at Rongwrong reformats in various forms. Meanwhile, the 27th of February 2020 sees the deadline for yet another competition by the Rijksmuseum: the Rijksstudio award, which “invites everyone to create their own masterpiece inspired by the Rijksmuseum’s collection. An international jury of experts will assess who the 10 finalists and the 3 winners of the Rijksstudio Award 2020 are.” The Rembrandt and Ravachol Appreciation Society can neither confirm nor deny that this has any bearing on the opening of its exhibition at Rongwrong two days later.