Manipulate the Critic

Manipulate the World: Connecting Öyvind Fahlström at Moderna Museet confronts us with the question: what is the critical function of an image that shows that a cipher is a cipher?

Öyvind Fahlström, Världsbanken, 1971. Foto: Åsa Lundén.

1. The most rewarding aspect of Manipulate the World: Connecting Öyvind Fahlström at Moderna Museet – which places a number of contemporary artists next to five works by Fahlström – is the opportunity of experiencing a work such as World Bank (1971) properly: materially, spatially, sensibly, aesthetically. The work is well-known and has often been photographically reproduced. On a table dressed in purple velvet stands a pyramid of bullion. Around the pyramid, cut-out map details and figures are neatly posed: a schematic map of Venezuela in different versions, adorned with simple historical and statistical data; comic book-like humans and monsters, also furnished with pedagogical information – and so on.

The arrangement of signs and things tells a clear, although fragmented, story of the World Bank as an agent of North American imperialism and neoliberal structural adjustment. According to the Venezuela sequence, to take one example, the country’s oil industry is, first, controlled by foreign interests, then, nationalized, then, after an economic crisis, financed with loans from the World Bank. Two figures illustrate the subsequent events: the World Bank poses draconian demands on its debtor (ease taxation on foreign companies, lower duties on oil sales, increase concessions to foreign investors), whereupon Venezuela’s democracy collapses, and the country once again becomes a military dictatorship (claims Fahlström’s data, which is here incorrect).

Other elements in the installation confirm the same story. One of the figures represents the World Bank in the shape of a giant octopus, wearing a Santa Claus mask. In one of its tentacles, it holds a Venezuelan worker in a stranglehold, in another a small bag with “loans,” in yet another a large bag with “profits.” And so on. All of this can be gleaned from the readily accessible documentation of the work (see here for example).

Hito Steyerl, Factory of the Sun, 2015.

What cannot be derived from such information is: the weightless, almost unreal sensation of dwelling in the dark space, in the center of which the installation glows dimly, lit from above by a group of spotlights. In the compact darkness, you can hardly perceive the room’s limits: walls, ceiling, floor. Underscoring the impression, the floor is covered by a soft, thick carpet, so that it is as if your feet never really touch the ground, as if you were hovering in space rather than traversing a room. And in this space, The World Bank is the absolute center, that around which everything revolves, the single body in a system where you yourself are only a floating, immaterial, non-social gaze. Plutocracy as cosmology.

If you only see documentation of the work you are also likely not to note that the table on which the installation stands is low, as if it were intended for children. This does not reduce the almost aggressive, absolutist, pluto-Ptolemaic character of the centralized spatial organization and the symmetrical gold arrangement, but it does add further connotations to the work, of treasure trove or fairytale land. At the same time you read it, paradoxically, as a gesture of generosity. Placed on this level, the comic book- and toy-like figures invite you to play (even though you are not allowed), and there is something thoughtful – rather than paternalistic or threatening – about the choice of setting these didactic information pieces on a child’s eye level. This, everyone should be able to read.

What does The World Bank do? Something unusual, not unique, but which only occurs at certain junctures in the history of modern art: it combines the clarity and visual punch of propaganda, with the kind of formal rigor that is a prerequisite of true artistic freedom; the popular with the avant-garde. At the level of content the work is clear enough, and the simple story it tells of the destructive underside of the World Bank’s rhetoric of growth and development remains generally valid (even if the specific data Fahlström uses is unreliable).

Formally, the work gives the image of a shattered and – with the catchword of the exhibition – manipulable world. In active opposition to its synthetic tableau of a coherent, holistic, gold-centered universe, it sets its dispersed, fragmented cartography, where the world is instead characterized by incoherence, incommensurability, conflict. The work’s inner, formal contradictions repeat the antagonisms of the world from which it originates, and which it depicts. The image of harmonious world order demands, in order to be effective, the repression, the mystification of its incompatibility with the emerging global system’s reality of inequality, exploitation, and antagonism. If such incompatibilities can instead be rendered visible as open contradictions, Fahlström claims, then they can also become sites of play, sites where we may learn to renegotiate the rules, zones of possible struggle and fantasy.

Öyvind Fahlström, World Trade Monopoly (B, Large), 1970.

2. In connection to The World Bank, which is shown in one of the difficult, basement-like exhibition spaces on Moderna Museet’s lower floor, there is a constellation of contemporary artworks, congenially installed in a system of storage shelves: films by Kajsa Dahlberg and Harun Farocki, installations by Hanan Hilwé/Walid Raad and Natascha Sadr Haghighian, sculptures and objects by Otobong Nkanga and Alexander Vaindorf, and so on. At the other end of the floor’s sequence of gallery spaces, works by Pratchaya Phintong, Katarina Pirak Sikku, and Ibrahim Mahama form an atmospheric, immersive environment, with a suggestive watchtower and walls covered in sackcloth.

A similar curatorial technique returns on the entrance level, where contemporary works by Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Hito Steyerl, Róza El-Hassan, and others, relate to two of Fahlström’s Monopoly-paintings (World Trade Monopoly A and B, both from 1970), and the famous installation Dr. Schweitzer’s Last Mission (1964–66), in an arrangement supposedly modeled on the design of the Monopoly boardgame. Fahlström’s film Mao-Hope March (1966) also serves as the reference point for a third, smaller cluster of works, by among others Jonas Staal, Wermke/Leinkauf, and the exhibition’s co-curators Goldin+Senneby. As the title suggests, the exhibition wants to “connect” Fahlström, translate his “stagings of facts and fantasies” into “a contemporary ‘game’ of politics and economy,” as the curator Fredrik Liew writes.

Which Fahlström? The five works which serve as the group show’s starting points or catalysts belong, we could say, to a turning point in Fahlström’s career. If Dr. Schweitzer’s Last Mission was one of the last moves in an earlier phase where Fahlström created variable and – in Umberto Eco’s sense – “open” works, employing idiosyncratic linguistic, symbolic, and rule-based systems, then the Monopoly paintings and The World Bank belong to a later phase where Fahlström’s sign worlds have instead become political, that is, generally legible and valid, but at the same time ideological, inscribed into patterns of power, exploitation, and mystification. The cryptic-political provocation Mao-Hope March bridges the two phases.

Rossella Biscotti, Le Teste in Oggetto, 2015.

Alchemy as Model

At the basis of both phases is an idea of the relation between play, spectatorship, and liberation. Already in his Concretist manifesto from 1953, Fahlström wrote that there was “nothing wrong with the systems,” so long as you “choose them yourself and do not follow those of convention.” In works such as Opera (1952–3), Ade-Ledic-Nander (1955–7), or a poem such as MOA (1) (1954), Fahlström therefore sought to refer the conventional legibility of the world back to the enigma of the poetic event, the event that generates meaning. This is the model of alchemy, or in art historical terms, the Duchampian model. The mystery of how symbolic, artistic, or economic value can appear “out of nothing” – how a bicycle wheel can become an artwork or lead can become gold – here becomes the principle of a playful mode of creation where arbitrary, cryptic codes, structures, and permutations give rise to complex, ciphered systems. “The reception of Ade-Ledic-Nander,” writes Jesper Olsson in his monography on the work, which is one of three parts of the exhibition’s catalog, “thus presents itself […] as an open and changing system of materialities, structures, and forces.”

Meaning does not exist in these systems from the outset, but appears through the act with which they are practiced, set to work, with which their repetitions and variations are made to generate correspondences and associations, fantasies and visions. To read them, to see them, to play them, is to construct the significance they harbor – and therefore at the same time to learn something regarding the accidental nature of language, or of the necessary groundlessness and arbitrariness of systems. Facing a work such as Dr. Schweitzer’s Last Mission, “not to follow convention” means to entangle yourself in Fahlström’s web of signs, to devote yourself to the complex relations he stages between semantic and material elements, historical characters and fantastic forms, so as to become a fellow player in the cryptic process through which value and significance are generated. Like solving a rebus, but without the answer.

The Map Replaces the Cipher

The later Fahlström’s more directly political works stand in contrast to this model. The World Bank is here a key piece, as the first work he created “based entirely on historical and economic data,” as he himself noted. In these works, value is not something which appears out of nothing, but always already a question of power and exploitation. Language is not something groundless and arbitrary, but ideologically infected, something which must be “orchestrated” so as to give rise to both “understanding and outrage,” as Fahlström put it. Its contradictions must be revealed and transformed into sites of open antagonism, into games regarding the world’s possible composition. Here, the map replaces the cipher as heuristic model; capitalism in its global, imperial phase replaces “convention” as strategic antagonist.

Detanico Lain, Timezonetype, 2017.

Seeing the two Monopoly-paintings on display at Moderna Museet’s entrance floor is less overwhelming than meeting The World Bank. You are struck by their materiality and spatial presence (in her small monography about these works – part two of three in the exhibition’s catalog – Pamela Lee compares them to hard-edge paintings). The apparent paradox is that between the games’ complicated rules, which are inscribed on the center of the boards among a myriad of pieces, chips, symbols, and diagrams (Lee notes that the games are “terrifically convoluted”), and their popular address, also in terms of their definition as artworks and commodities: these were models, constructed for reproduction and distribution, potentially on a mass scale. Playing Fahlström’s World Trade Monopoly would probably be as cumbersome as “deciphering” his Ade-Ledic-Nander. But what is essential is that the direction has been reversed: where the cipher leads us in towards the mysterious randomness at the foundation of any sign system, the monopoly games and the maps want to teach us – as many of us as possible – to read the actual configuration of power as the result of an ongoing strategy, as a move awaiting our counter-move. In the later Fahlström, the game of liberation is no longer hermetic and poetic, but critical and pedagogic.

Capitalism as Mystery

Where along this axis can we locate the contemporary works arranged around Fahlström’s in Manipulate the World? Surprisingly, many would group around the former pole, the model of the cipher and the poetic-alchemic mystery. Goldin+Senneby, Nicholas Mangan, Hanan Hilwé/Walid Raad, and Hito Steyerl can all be said to work with fundamentally mimetic forms, responding to the ungraspable complexity of contemporary global capitalism as a social and economic system, by representing it as miraculous, magical.

With his apocryphal arrangements and narratives, Walid Raad is perhaps the artist in the exhibition who is the closest to the early Fahlström. His and “Hanan Hilwé’s” installation Yet More Letters to the Reader (2017) – around a spectral collection of masterpieces of European art in a non-existing art museum in Abu Dhabi – places us in front of a contemporary web of quite real imperialist and geopolitical power relations. At the same time, all of the characters in the story are incredible, all anecdotes unreliable, all statements ambiguous. We are confronted with a radical “as if”, as if our historical reality were only a groundless, artistic construction, which it is. (But: how should we, i.e. all, become this history’s subjects, rather than the few, i.e. the magnates, the sheiks, the consultants? That is the question.)

Installation view from Manipulate the World: Connecting Öyvind Fahlström
at Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Photo: Åsa Lundén.

Nicholas Mangan and Goldin+Senneby both work more immediately with the alchemic-magical character of financial speculation. Mangan’s Limits to Growth (2016) sets up a parallel between one advanced and one archaic currency system, where a “bitcoin mine” – that is, a humming server stack installed in one of the exhibition spaces at the museum’s lower floor – runs a large-format printer in another space which, as the “mine” generates value, prints out images of a sort of boulder that the exhibition folder explains “functioned as a means of exchange” on “the island of Yap in the Pacific” one thousand years ago. Goldin+Senneby’s Zero Magic (2016–17) makes the spectator directly complicit in a speculative transaction: ten per cent of the exhibition’s entrance fee (150 SEK!) is invested in a “shorting attack,” that is, bet on the future decrease in value of a company, while a targeted defamation campaign against the same company is set in process. What both works have in common is that they do not reveal anything about their operations or conditions: the humming server stack of the “bitcoin mine” remains opaque, and the method and the object of the “shorting attack” remain, if not secret, then at least unspoken, invisible.

Instead of Politics: Apathy

The objection is here apparent. If it is the case that the global market structures and financial systems of contemporary capitalism are so complex, capillary, distributed, and accelerated that they form one vast cipher, ungraspable to the extent that it challenges the very limits of our cognitive faculties, and in whose networks we are all implicated whether we want it or not – if that is indeed the case, then why do we need artworks that additionally mystify that system? Does this situation not, on the contrary, create a greater, pressing, urgent need of demystifications? What is the critical function of an image that shows that a cipher is a cipher?

We can imagine two possible answers. The first: that this is not what these works are attempting to do. The system has no outside, there is no point from which an “objective” representation of it could be produced, and the critical figure must therefore instead be based on involvement. Such an answer is based on a simplified idea of representation, and a mystic idea of involvement. To be involved in the networks of contemporary financial capitalism is, as some like to remind us, something completely unavoidable. But it is also something completely undramatic and quotidian. We are so every time we buy a banana, and it fills no apparent critical function. On the other hand, to make an artwork of such involvement and exhibit it at a museum is – unavoidably – to raise it to the level of representation and example. These works contain a necessarily mimetic, exemplifying element, whether they want to or not (and why would they not?).

The second answer: that there is a critical value in showing that a cipher is a cipher, because the ciphered system wants to present itself as transparent, self-evident, necessary as a law of nature. That is correct – but is it what these artworks are doing? With their technically advanced insight into the mechanisms of financial systems, their intricate, ambivalent narrative structures and theatrical characters, and their sweeping allegories of the digitized and financialized ecosystems of our time, Raad’s, Mangan’s, Goldin+Senneby’s, and Steyerl’s works instead risk confirming the image of contemporary capitalism as a mystery, whose omnipotence and complexity place it out of reach of all critique or transformation. If we accept such an image, the result is apathy, that is, the opposite of politics.

Installation view from Manipulate the World: Connecting Öyvind Fahlström
at Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Photo: Åsa Lundén.

Points Where the Game Can Be Reopened

Alongside these works in Manipulate the World there are a number of others which are closer to the later phase of Fahlström’s development, and closer to the great lineage of critical montage and cognitive mapping, than to Duchampian alchemy. Here, the images of the network of contemporary capitalism do not fetishize our involvement in its mystical omnipotence, but seek to map its nodes and contradictions: points where political antagonism can be recreated, where the game can be reopened.

Harun Farocki’s two-channel film Watson is Down (Serious Games I) (2010) – about therapeutic computer games within the American military apparatus – does not claim that all media technologies are today compromised through their association with the military-industrial complex, or that the radical ideal of free play has been assimilated into the tactics of the war game. Farocki’s methodical critique of the intertwined genealogies of technologies of war and technologies of vision, instead seeks to distance us from any unreflected notion of their neutral, innocent nature, so as to invite us to understand them politically, consider how they might possibly be organized, of the worlds they could be used to create. This is a story we have heard before, but at the historical moment of total media monopolies it remains essential.

At first glance, Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Earshot (2016) appears to have little in common with a work such as Fahlström’s The World Bank. But the colorful spectrograms mounted on hanging screens in one of the corridors of the entrance floor exhibition space soon turn out to be the elements of a fragmented map. What they reveal is the minimal acoustic boundary that separates premeditated murder from juridically (but not morally) defensible police violence. The images show what distinguishes the sound of rubber-coated, non-lethal ammunition, of the kind Israeli police forces claim to use against Palestinian demonstrators, from sharp ammunition, of the kind that, on May 15, 2014, was used to kill two Palestinian teenagers in Bituniya, on the West Bank. Abu Hamdan’s spectrograms have a direct juridical use value as evidence. At their basis is the non-cynical notion that a specifically aesthetic cartography – or counter-cartography – can uncover new zones of memory and evidence, where juridical and political systems may be turned against the powers that normally control them.

Candice Lin’s System for a Stain (2016) is an allegory of a problem that haunts any political project in the era of imperialism and globalization: the radical separation between cause and effect. A sculptural construction of wooden structures, containers, and historical artifacts (associated with the East India Company, according to the exhibition folder), together make up a distiller which, using “classical colonial raw materials” such as “sugar, tea, and cochineal” (explains the exhibition folder), produces a red fluid, which is then piped away to another part of the exhibition, where it leaks out as a blood stain onto a marble floor. The violent effects of the process of extraction and refining (in one word: labor) are invisible from the place where its results can be enjoyed. Lin’s assemblage is an effective image of the spatiotemporal disruption that is today a fundamental challenge to any political subjectivation, any attempt to establish a new “we,” at the same time as it constitutes a kind of minor monument over the historical violence of imperialism.

Öyvind Fahlström, Mao-Hope March, 1966.

3.How does Manipulate the World function as exhibition, with its three-part structure, organized around Fahlström’s works? The heart of the exhibition is without a doubt the meta-assemblage on the lower floor, and perhaps it is no coincidence that the contemporary works are there grouped around the most achieved among the Fahlström works. It is remarkable that this part of the exhibition functions as well as it does, considering how many of the works are crammed in among packing cases on a spacious storage shelf. You get the impression that these videos, archive installations, and historically charged artifacts would in fact have seemed more misplaced in a normal gallery space.

Of course, it also has to do with the suggestive chain of associations established by the arrangement of artworks, between The World Bank’s bullion and global antagonisms, the storage space’s connotations of supply-chain and infrastructure, and the third room’s evocative scenography of works by Ibrahim Mahama, Pratchaya Phintong, and Katarina Pirak Sikku, which renders physically tangible the geography of social and economic inequality. It is a successful example of the exhibition as a curatorial meta-artwork.

No corresponding play of associations is engendered in the large exhibition space at the museum’s entrance floor. Hito Steyerl defends her position as one of the defining artists of our time, there is no question about it. But must she figure in every single exhibition of critical contemporary art? And must her installations be so unwieldy? Could the defender of the “poor image” not have employed a more modest screen arrangement than the large, Superstudio-influenced black box that now dominates the exhibition space? The curatorial assemblage of this space is supposed to be modeled on the design of the Monopoly board, where pieces move across a sequence of tiles along the perimeter of the board. But a game board can also be overviewed: you look down upon it as you might look down upon a map. This synoptic character is here lost. Instead, the space functions as a suite of galleries, the most classical of museum arrangements.

Sirous Namazi, Chandelier, 2014. Foto: Carl Henrik Tillberg.

For some of the artists this works better than for others. Abu Hamdan’s and Lin’s installations function well in the context, as do Róza El-Hassan’s group of sculptures and Thu Van Tran’s impressive rubber installation. But Fahlström’s Monopoly paintings and the Dr. Schweitzer installation are not able to assert their role as matrices of the overall arrangement – which is a pity, both for Fahlström’s works and for the others. The most urgent parts of the exhibition are also those that most clearly engage with the critical methods and figures which can be derived from the work of the Swedish-Brazilian crypto-cartographer, in its different phases.

The third part of the exhibition, centered around the Mao-Hope March film, is less coherent, spatially as well as thematically. It features interventions in public space, and in different economic and symbolical systems: Goldin+Senneby’s financial interventions, Jonas Staal’s interventions in Dutch urban spaces, Detanico Lain’s intervention into the museum’s communications apparatus, and so on. It is unclear what unites these “interventions” in essentially different structures and spaces, other than the word itself.

It is also in this section that the exhibition’s worst work can be found. Wermke/Leinkauf’s and Lutz Henke’s film Symbolic Threats (2015) shows an action that the artists performed in New York’s urban space – they replaced the American flags on top of the Brooklyn Bridge with white ones – and which unleashed a furious paroxysm in American right-wing media, from large media corporations such as Fox News, to the sites and channels of the “alt-right” movement. The film’s distanced, ironic, quickly paced montage of brief cuts treats this neurotic, tightly wound rhetoric as a bizarre joke. As spectators, we are expected to react with a horrified but ultimately confident laughter. But this is no light-hearted parlor game. On the contrary: for the game to have a possible future, the threat must be taken seriously.

Installation view from Manipulate the World: Connecting Öyvind Fahlström at Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Photo: Åsa Lundén.