The Politics of Bad Neighbours

Ina Blom’s new essay collection enjoins us not to affirm what makes us feel most at home, but rather to attend to our feelings of estrangement.

Bjarne Melgaard / Snøhetta, A House to Die in. Illustration: MIR og Snøhetta.

To read a great many Ina Blom essays over a short period of time is to enter a zone of intense speculation on the social. More specifically, to read the art historian’s latest offering, Houses to Die In and Other Essays on Art, is to partake in nearly two decades of scholarly and critical inquiry into the modes of social and political organization that might be adequate to our present era, what sociologist Manuel Castells famously termed the “Information Age.”

Spanning the years between 2005 and 2019, this heady collection of writings invites readers to consider various performative sites of exchange alongside “techniques of association” where the social is not primarily the intersubjective domain of human relations, but rather a “principle of connectivity… that can be traced between things that are themselves not social.” Here, the word ‘techniques’ should be understood in its broadest sense as techné: a kind of doing and making as well as a kind of technology. Just so, situated at the intersection of art history and media studies, much of the book concerns itself with the ways that artistic experimentation with electronic media and digital technologies might open onto sites of social invention by troubling habitual modes of thought, feeling, and communication, among other things, and in doing so generate potential for new connections and exchanges to emerge. A productive potential, in other words. 

Ina Blom.

Blom, who is currently visiting professor in the University of Chicago’s prestigious art history department, specialises on the avant-garde and neo-avant-garde practices of the 1950s and 60s, but also writes extensively on contemporary art. Consequently, Houses to Die In – which borrows its title from A House to Die In (2011–ongoing), Bjarne Melgaard and Snøhetta’s experimental art villa outside Oslo – also surveys more than a half-century of economic transformation in which the human capacities for communication and self-invention have been increasingly put to work by late-capitalism’s hyper-industrialised total-design machine. The extent to which the avant-garde ideal of merging art with life actually helped precipitate those transformations is, of course, part of what’s at stake here. Mostly, however, the author brackets these discussions, preferring instead to mull over topics such as the implications of digital archives on collective memory and the aesthetic and social potential of negative affects such as pain, paranoia, abjection, and most prominently stupidity – which she closely associates with rock music.

Although the book’s many references to the genre can grow somewhat tiresome, Blom is in her wheelhouse when nerding out on, say, “acousmatic voices” and “machine ears” in the work of composer Florian Hecker, or, in what may be the most comprehensive and painstaking exhibition review I’ve ever read, the televisual legacy of John Cage. 

We might therefore be forgiven for thinking that for Blom, a former DJ and music critic, musical subcultures represent ideal social sites bursting with potential for new forms of collectivity. Yet, as she makes clear in the book’s introduction, what holds this collection together is its focus on projects which convey a sense of trouble or unease. “I am not promoting these kinds of ‘trouble’ as artistic or aesthetic ideals or as items in a theory of what makes art ‘good’,” she cautions. For, as she remarks later on in an essay on the work of photographer Torbjørn Rødland, “there is no excuse for courting stupidity.” 

On the contrary, Houses to Die In showcases the art historian’s erudition: there are incisive studies, such as ‘How to (Not) Answer a Letter’, a Derridean reading of the American mail artist Ray Johnson’s work as a “postal performance [that] marks the end of the postal.” Other standouts include the timely ‘Avant-Garde Populism’, which delimits the aesthetic and political spaces common to the historical avant-garde and populist politics, and ‘Closed Circuit’, a reflection on the Swedish painter Ulla Wiggen’s engagement with the unknowable of cybernetics.

Less convincing are the catalog essays which, while demonstrating Blom’s virtuosity as a critic, also contain some of the book’s more outrageous suggestions. For example, that the memory of the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), might somehow be inscribed within the ‘zombie formalist’ paintings of Fredrik Værslev. Or that a black and white photograph by Rødland of a woman in a wet t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “das asperger-syndrom” is an attempt to recuperate the political undercurrents of rock. As if the male gaze were a kind of subversion. On a related score, of the book’s nineteen essays, only two focus on women: Wiggen and Rachel Harrison. Given the overwhelming number of male artists whose work is discussed, it would appear that access to the domain of aesthetico-social experimentation to which Blom incessantly refers is a privilege reserved predominantly for white European men (with Nam June Paik, a notable exception). Troubling, indeed. 

Ulla Wiggen, Kanalväljare (Channel selector), acrylic paint on board, 60 x 80 cm, 1967. Photo: Åsa Lundén/Moderna Museet.

Yet to read a great number of Blom’s essays in a short period of time is also to open oneself to the suggestion that what makes us most uneasy in the work of artists like Rødland, Melgaard, and Ben Vautier, and to an extent artists associated with relational aesthetics such as Philippe Parreno and Liam Gillick, is not their aesthetically or politically questionable content, but rather the alternative ontology of sociality that they propose – one in which the social does not comprise a set of more or less stable forms and practices, but names an ambivalent site of continuous conflict and individuation. But what is at stake is more than a simple opposition between consensus and antagonism. In Blom’s analyses, where we expect to find reciprocity, we instead get opportunism; instead of conviviality, we get cynicism; instead of freedom, flexibility and control; most importantly, instead of the universal subject of History, we get a multitude of technical beings going nowhere in particular. 

While such thinking might evoke the infamous neoliberal dictum, “there is no such thing as society,” or the darker side of what Paolo Virno termed “the grammar of the multitude,” it can also be seen as an engagement with the architecture of civil society, whose philosophical and aesthetic foundations are, as Fred Moten has persuasively argued, essentially antisocial and necessarily necropolitical. There is nothing exemplary or redemptive about these artworks, as Blom puts it, because the model itself is irredeemable. If there is something disturbing about this ‘thesis’, it is perhaps because it enjoins us to fundamentally reconsider not only the specific contents of our established forms of social practice, but also our ethical and political ideals – even the notion of subjectivity itself. In a time of deepening social division where a resurgent right-wing nationalism is fuelled by xenophobia and populist appeals to security and tradition, such reappraisals may in fact be urgent political work.

This suggestion appears most convincingly and, it might be added, poignantly in ‘Courtyard Malevich’, the book’s concluding essay on the social dynamics and political failures of Blom’s former housing co-operative (located in a building that remarkably once belonged to a chapter of the Action Analytical Organisation, an “anti-society” founded by notorious Vienna Actionist Otto Muehl). “We looked after each other’s children, watered each other’s plants. We kept the budgets manageable and transparent. We were good neighbours,” Blom writes. They also profited: by the author’s estimation, each shareholder earned up to EUR 2,500 a month simply by living in the building. No trouble there. But Blom’s point is precisely that there should have been. For, as she also points out, they lacked sufficient political and conceptual tools to recognise that theirs was a communalism served up by capital, an information economy mining value from their “hopeful but meandering performance” of solidarity. Being good neighbours does not always make for transformative politics. Then again, what does?  

Torbjørn Rødland, Wet Shirt, selenium toned silver print, 45x 57 cm, 2003–2006.