Reactive creativity

The creative fever at the Gothenburg Biennial is a critical reaction that remains dependent on the system it wants to oppose.

Wim Botha, Solipsis I, 2011. Photo: © Wim Botha.

It’s the morning of the opening of Gothenburg’s seventh International Biennial for Contemporary Art, Pandemonium – Art in a Time of Creativity Fever. In Svenska Dagbladet (10 September) I read, apropos of the Swedish automobile industry’s bowing down, that it has become all “the more difficult to determine where capitalism’s power ends and where the power of labor unions begins.” One can be quite certain that the economic situation is critical when the upper-middle-class press par excellence not only openly acknowledges the opposition between labor and capital as the economy’s normal division of roles, but also formulates political analysis more concisely than radically generated curatorial jargon can manage.

Pandemonium – Art in a Time of Creativity Fever. Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art
Bohusläns museum, Göteborgs Konsthall, Göteborgs konstmuseum, Röda Sten Konsthall, Gothenburg

But what does the Swedish automobile industry have in common with an art biennial taking as an explicit starting point the devil’s palace that the 1600s poet and politician John Milton portrays in his major work Paradise Lost? Curator Sarat Maharaj says there is a similarity between the restructuring of the labor force that rewards self-organization, creativity, and process-based work (think for example of Volvo’s factories during the 1990s) and the devil’s insistence on conjuring up a non-divine world order. Whether the universal equivalent is spelled god or gold doesn’t seem to matter. The devil’s order and the experimental organization of labor are both seen as utopian alternatives that will never see full realization, but now can be the starting points for a radical artistic practice.

Reena Saini Kallat, White Yarn (Silt of Reason), 2008.

If in spite of the risk of vertigo we allow ourselves to look down from this dizzying analogy to explore its more earthly components—for it is in fact only here, and not down in Milton’s hell, that the curatorial conceptualization mainly extends—then I can discern three ways in which this process-based creativity, according to Maharaj, would characterize current production modes. The jargon of creativity has been one way to update the work all the time, to go from production to modulation. In addition the jargon offers a reply to an emphasis in which consumption rather than production, demand rather than supply, are supposed to be the system’s driving force. Finally the jargon should express the increasingly psychological emphasis attendant on the move from metal work to mental work in what Maharaj calls “the prevailing digital world order.”

Even if some historical clarification were in place here—for instance, that the transition to creative work was initially capital’s answer to increasing pressure from the organized labor movement, and that it was precisely the primacy of consumption and demand which already united capitalism and colonialism—even so the basic question in this context would probably be: What is the role of art in all of this? Indeed, in the eight pages devoted to the change just described, art is given eight lines. They are based on one concept, the creative act, whose originator, Gilles Deleuze, is not acknowledged (but to whom we will return toward the conclusion). Sarat Maharaj says, rather misleadingly, that the concept comprises “a haphazard, volcanic, all-over activity” that “meld[s] into a ‘process without protocol.'” At a press conference the curators explained that this will be concretized as the biennial brings together artists, theoreticians, and students. Much can thus be said about the curatorial imperative, but that has hardly any categorical rigor.

Liam Gillick, Construction of One.

The project that nevertheless most clearly presents itself in these terms is Liam Gillick’s sound-work Construction of One. Consisting of a drafted lecture read aloud, it discusses and analyzes research reports from the previously mentioned period of the history of the Swedish automobile industry. He sees its collective-work model as an appropriate dispositif (Foucault’s term) for repoliticizing discursive contemporary art which, in turn, can complement the form of labor with a valid critical mode, thus preventing superfluity in the production force which becomes a risk attendant on the rise of an economy based on knowledge and automation. More simply put: the end is subordinate to the means in an artistic practice designed to create new social bonds. But instead of the earlier way of staging situations—as was the case with relational esthetics—Gillick now takes refuge in the knowledge-producing trend that is usually known as the educational turn.

In Reena Saini Kallat’s work Untitled (Drawing/Map) Gillick’s idea of improved social production is given a metaphorical correspondence on the level of consumption. Using found ethernet cables and mobile-phone components Kallat has put together a world atlas that covers one of the Konsthall’s largest walls. It may be possible to see it as a hopeful picture of how post-industrial creativity can establish new points of contact out of the detritus of a consumerist society.

Antonio Vega Macotela, Time exchange 349, 350, 351 © Antonio Vega Macotela.

The distanceless attempts to repoliticize art by Gillick and Kallat are stood parodically on their heads by Antonio Vega Macotela’s work Time exchange. The basic idea is simple. In exchange for the fact that prison inmates pick up cigarette butts and make topological sketches across the prison soundscape—which can be seen as art objects—Macotela has carried out services to the inmates that are temporarily equivalent to their activities. The work is to be understood as an attempt, via this exchange, to illuminate critically the prison’s central role in the state’s organization of value-added work which Foucault exposed in the mid-seventies.

One may question the reasonableness of such an illumination, however, from two directions. The first involves the curatorial framework’s emphasis on post-industrial production. To what degree can the prison actually organize this type of work force? The second involves contemporary security discourse, which has led to a real, unmistakable overpopulation in the world’s prisons. Can’t the expense of the increasing number of inmates become entirely too far-reaching in relation to the production the prison system can organize? So isn’t Macotela’s work, at least in its present curatorial conceptualizing, out of phase with historical development? And in that case doesn’t the artwork’s critical parody run the risk of turning into a parodic critique?

Matthew Buckingham, The Spirit and The Letter, 2007. Videostill.

These three works exemplify a pervasive problem with the biennial’s curatorial framework, namely that the work is presented as creative while the works themselves finally are reactions to a problem they identified in the capitalistic system. Whether this comes to expression through exhortation via direct ethical intervention (as in Gillick), a metaphorical mediation via an updating (as in Kallat), or a distracting treatment that replaces the system’s logic with something even more absurd (as in Macotela), the protesters remain dependent on the system they want to oppose. Thus one muddles away the idea of the liberation coming in non-goal-oriented esthetic reflection. That this is later given the rubric “creativity” is almost ironic. Especially the way Adorno far into every mentioning of the post-industrial argued that the more individuals are devalued into functionaries in the societal unit by being coupled to the system, the more the merely human will in principle be ascribed to creative power and autonomy.

Then so much for creativity. Fortunately a number of works depart from this logic. To begin, there are some which, instead of attempting ethically, metaphorically, or ironically to bridge the gap between the freedom of art and the restrictions of circumstances, incorporate this opposition and make it part of the work’s own tension. I’m thinking particularly of Matthew Buckingham’s The Spirit and the Letter, which by way of its digital image lets a staged Mary Wollstonecraft wander upside-down on the ceiling of the Westminster School and address our allegedly post-feminist era with her proto-feminist ideas. On the floor in the space in front of the video stands a replica of the chandelier that crowns the room at the Westminster School. On the wall opposite the video screen sits an upside-down mirror. Thus the room becomes a kind of dialectical montage in which the past is taken as income as a reminder that equality in its universal (eternal) form as well as its particular (historical) configuration requires a perpetually unfashionable reconsideration to be unfolded again in the future.

Chen Chieh-Jen, Empire’s Borders II– Western Enterprises, Inc., 2010. Video installation. Photo: Yang Chen-hao.

Chen Chieh-Jen’s video installation Empire’s Borders II – Western Enterprises, Inc. can also be seen by means of a similar logic in which the obviousness of the present time is questioned: the historically superseded is again made palpable. On the anniversary of his father’s death a son investigates a number of objects the father left behind, including a photo album that is missing pictures and a list of soldiers who disappeared while working for Western Enterprises, an undercover operation started by the CIA in the battle against communism. The son goes into the operation’s factory to find material that can demonstrate the reality of the lives erased from his father’s archive. The film—whose visual atmosphere is reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s—is a dystopian deep-sea dive into the sulfurous refuse left behind by historical revisionism. But it is also a marvelous revelation of a forgotten connection that the artistic effort can bring to life. This is emphasized further when documentary and fictional pictures are interleaved, as if a play of pictures shown in a back room indicates what we assume are the photo album’s lost portraits.

These works by Buckingham and Chen overlap two time periods, the present and the repressed past, to bear witness that for the future it is necessary, paradoxically enough, to re-awaken in a precise way the questions of the past. But there is also a series of works that seem to move away from every time-oriented connection. They deal, on the one hand, with gestalts which in themselves seem to carry the future in a way the earlier works could only hint at; on the other hand, with space that seems to prepare a place for such a promise.  Serving as an example of the first group is Wim Botha’s enormous installation Solipsis III, a collection of bodies taking their form equally from the fragmented Greek torso and science-fiction’s crystallized minerals. Unpretentiously supported by coarsely struck wood constellations, but bathing in and reflecting off of a fluorescent light, they occupy the whole room even while they seem to possess a peculiarly ethereal air that withdraws from the room. It all creates an odd dialectic between presence and absence.

Wim Botha, Solipsis I, 2011. Photo: © Wim Botha.

Zarina Bhimji’s photographs rearrange this evasion’s logic so that the observer seems to fall into the image. The pictures, which lack figures, often portray abandoned rooms or places. It can be a closed-down warehouse site where the shadow falling over the grating in front of the window seems to go out from the focal point, or a cobweb being woven in front of an open yard without the web’s grounding points being visible. But the net seems inscribed on the picture’s very border pattern (an inscription which perhaps also responds better to photo-graphy’s literal meaning). These apparently peripheral elements can seem products of chance. But they also set in motion another kind of photographic vision than the kind traditionally understanding the medium’s mechanized eye as a way of taking space into imaginary possession at the same time one distances oneself from it. Instead it seems that the shadow’s incursion and the web’s inscription point to an indissoluble connection between observer and observed, subject and object, a relation that historian of photography Geoffrey Batchen has recently discussed. Bhimji’s pictures activate, however, a further obscurity, namely that of the status of space. The rural scenes we seem drawn into can first be seen through a sociological screen, and in that way can offer witness of an African rural region given over to the consequences of urban migration. In this way they now seem to stand indifferently in every area of use, but also handed over randomly to be occupied by anyone and everyone. So facing Bhimji’s pictures I’m placed in an odd coalescence that may best be formulated as the identity between energetic egalitarianism and an enervated “whatever,” between nourishing equality and exhausted leveling—the always equally valid?

Zarina Bhimji, Love, 2001-2006.

Thus by way of conclusion it becomes Bhimji’s merit to shed light on the deleuzian concept that appeared so disturbing in Sarat Maharaj’s application. Creative action for Deleuze has nothing to do with the nature of the creative work. It has even less to do with any defined economic activity, whether the practitioners are called artists, theoreticians, students, or Volvo workers. The artwork’s power and the creative act have in common that they always cancel out the idea of people’s defined categories, that the power and the act are characterized by the absence of these people, while power and act also constantly point to a people who do not yet exist. The creative act consists in the power of art to protect and preserve life and give it to a people consisting of everyone and no one, not the other way around.

Translation from the Swedish by Richard Simpson.