Failure as “good taste”

Ina Blom har skrevet en tekst om årets Momentum for det franske kunsttidsskriftet FROG (red. Eric Troncy og Stéphanie Moisdon).

Om Momentum 2006.

Ina Blom har skrevet en tekst om årets Momentum for det franske kunsttidsskriftet FROG (red. Eric Troncy og Stéphanie Moisdon). Her påpeker hun bl.a. den tilsynelatende mangelen på menneskelig drama i utstillingens behandling av temaet “feil” i forhold til utopimodellene som ble presentert i verkene. Teksten er på engelsk.

In a culture moving to the beat of perfectionism, of perpetual self-improvement, the idea of failure holds a special place. Let’s call that place the place of art: the place where the irrelevant promises of outdated commodities are brought to life, where unsavory political compromises are dissected, where human will and intention is trapped by bodily automatism, and where utopian schemes are mined for information about their more or less spectacular lack of success. The spirit of that place may be identified with the spirit of a hundred biennials, of huge public art manifestations more often than not funded on the promise of the political relevance of the alternative point of view: the failure model is ideally tailored to this specific cultural task. And among the various failure topoi crowding contemporary art, the one related to utopianism seems to be a particular favorite, returning in work after work, in one curatorial project after another. So when the Scandinavian Momentum biennial in Moss, a small city close to Oslo, names its main exhibition Try again. Fail again. Fail Better, it resonates not so much with the poetics of absurdity attributed to the original author of this statement (Samuel Beckett), as with the default logic of a particular type of exhibition project. Perhaps this impression is primarily the result of the seeming lack of passion in this exhibition, a lack of any kind of acute and coherently formulated engagement with the specific dramas of failure. Or perhaps this is just a cynical point of view, triggered by biennale fatigue and biennale rhetoric fatigue – a rhetoric rendered all the more transparent in smaller-size ventures that lack the usual overpowering biennale apparatus.

Be that as it may: the fact still remains that in the context of the general failure scenario, some of the best works in this exhibition seem to invite reflections on the quite contradictory approaches to utopianism that are operative on the current art scene. The works in question, by Phil Collins, Gerard Byrne, Joachim Koester and Johanna Billing, all return to the ruins of former utopian moments, digging up the frozen-in-time sensation of these sites with a rhetoric that speaks the language of melancholia loud and clear. Always attentive to place and context, Phil Collins explores the disastrous effects of Norwegian expertise idealistically and insensitively displaced to different contexts in the hope of empowering local communities in 3. World countries. The case he chooses is well known in Norwegian political history and had anthropologists seething for years (since the aid technocrats never consulted them). It turned out that the industrial fishing methods of Norwegian coastal communities did not necessarily match the social, ecological and political conditions in coastal communities on the African or Indian continent. Disastrous failure ensued, most famously in Kerala, India. For his part, Collins documents the empty Norwegian-built factory halls on the shores of Kenya’s lake Turkana in a series of haunting photographs. Photographic documentation is also the technique of choice of Joachim Koester, as he tracks down the fragments of the doomed alternative community of Aleister Crowley in Sicily: Hidden by shrubs and surrounded by elegant suburban homes, he finds a ruin of a very modest building, but one where the mythically and sexually charged wall decorations of the Crowley cult are still visible. In the video installation work named 1984 and Beyond, Gerard Byrne uses professional actors in a sophisticated restaging of a round-table conference with a number of well-known science fiction writers that was published in Playboy magazine in 1963: The highly solution-oriented speculations on the near future are brought out in all their dated quaintness. Johanna Billing, in contrast, only restages her own artistic work. The 2005 video Magical World documented her work with a group of Zagreb children as they rehearse an eponymous 1960’s American song about change; the present work Another Album, documents the singing activities of the adults that were in the background in the previous project. The project reads as if the childish optimism documented in the first film had to be tempered by the complexities of adult relationships, associated with a more realistic now-time. For all their obvious differences, these works all provide a more or less dejected look at past moments of optimism. And all along, failure and dejection is associated with artistic form: hence the enormous rhetorical conviction of the work’s melancholic stances. Collins, for instance, fixates on the beauty of the curiously æsculptural” arrangement of the few pieces of equipment left in the big empty halls – arrangements that in his photographs most of all come across as some kind of Beuysian anti-monuments in the Arsenale halls of the Venice Biennial. Koester’s photographs lovingly fixate on the half-ruined state of the inspirational imagery of the highly dysfunctional Crowley cult – touching memento mori to the very spirit of alternative living. The remoteness of Byrne’s roundtable is conveyed less through the statements of the participants than through the very obvious retro-glossy Stanley Kubrick style directing and acting. Billing, for her part, keeps us emotionally tied to the ambivalences of the past/future scenario through the vehicle of informal, communal song: few things can be more embarrassingly quaint and distant, few things can be more moving.

The question is what these returns to utopia offer us – apart from uncanny time travels, useful lessons in skepticism and beautifully arranged ambivalence carved from the leftovers of past certitude. At a time when the notion of the end of grand narratives could be confused with a disclaimer on all forms of futurist thought, this might in itself have been enough. Today, thankfully, this particular misconception lies buried under the too obviously pressing need to keep imagining better worlds, in fact to keep reinventing utopian practice itself. Uncovering the rich historical material of failed utopias is undoubtedly part of such a project. But – as I believe is the case in the current Momentum biennial – the risk is always that such work becomes detached from this larger purpose, and mainly serves to feed into the habitual aesthetic taste for melancholia and light absurdism: failure as a matter of good taste. What slips away is a more articulate engagement with the fact that utopias and utopianism are not just a thing of the past, but also a driving force in an expansionist economic culture ever set on controlling and exploiting the new. New forms of futurist thinking and activity recognizes the fact that it has a double task: to make visible the specific and controlling forms and practices of the æproductive” utopianism of the present, at the same time as it presents methodologies of that will make possible the creation of uncontrollable moments of futurity. The much criticized Utopia Station project at the 2003 Venice Biennial could be seen as an attempt to investigate such forms of futurism; the many artistic projects that deploy the logic and dynamics of self-organization are equally important contributions to this field. Works of the kind shown by Collins, Byrne, Koester and Billing might need the support of this type of discursive context in order to fully activate their political/aesthetic potential: otherwise they too easily risk feeding into the logic of self-satisfied criticality with an equally satisfying aesthetic tinge. Placed in the company of the quaint cartographic musings of The Romantic Geographic Society or the sweet Icelandic pop absurdism of Egil Sæbjörnsson’s video work, that potential, sadly, evaporated.

FROG # 4, autonne/hiver 2006
(publisert med tillatelse av artikkelforfatteren og tidsskriftet).