things fall apart

Is the best professional one who believes deeply, passionately in his or her vocation?

I don’t find myself easily attracted to a simple idea. Nor do I find that a single ‘vocation’ easily encapsulates what I call ‘work’. In my mid-forties and more than ever before I realize that operating within a program or project; within a professional framework; within a discipline; and within— rather than against — a dominant culture is much ‘easier’ than making ones own way, wearing multiple ‘hats’, or challenging a status quo. And going against these default settings can be equated with ‘being difficult’.

I will no doubt always rationalize being difficult. Gosh I’ve heard it enough in life that I am bored by it. I love working with other artists generally. I have a filter for this ‘difficult’ stance with people I admire, even if I always worry that my own performative disposition does not ‘filter’ well. In fact, I do not know how anything would get done without this brand of sticktoitiveness that I find is oft lazily surveyed — down any given chain of command — as the perpetrator being difficult or even passive aggressive.

Since I have myself been accused of being passive aggressive, I’ll say what I think ‘is up’: I think that power sharing can be confused — due to a slower pace than hierarchical decision making — with passive aggressiveness. I think that in many domains of power — even ones that agree to shared decision making — that there are typically a range of actors operating firstly from their own best interests and secondly in allegiance to a group goal. Maybe a more fair way to put it is that any one person comprises participation in multiple domains of power. This is not wrong or even uncommon. I believe that one of these domains will be more ‘important’ than another. This too is normal at an individual level. I believe it is very difficult for participants whose highest priority ‘domain’ is oriented around ‘performance’ and/or ‘guaranteeing deliverables’ — in relation to advancement and financial incentive — to disengage tactics used for and by their dominant organizational cultural settings when working laterally.

From a panel discussion at the 2012 Res Artis conference in Tokyo — with local and regional artists speaking on the role of arts in post-earthquake Japan — Ong Keng Sen said in his keynote, “we have to remain potential … we cannot complete … when you take the action of completion, it’s always about power.”

My own personal challenge is to differentiate between the comfort of process and the need for closure. A New York therapist asked me once to consider attending a meeting of Under-earners Anonymous after hearing my professional woes. I would not do that for the reasons I state above and below.

In Representations of the Intellectual (1994), Edward Said enumerates a set of pressures — or “impingements of modern professionalization” — he believed can “challenge the intellectual’s ingenuity and will” that include specialization, attainment of expert status, and the “drift towards power and authority.” His critique is not one that means to challenge the acquisition of knowledge, but an observation that sometimes pedigreed ‘knowing’ is best deployed in tandem with lay wisdom among its other forms.

And, in No Room to Move: Radical Art and the Regenerate City (2010), Nils Norman responds to the question: “Is it possible to harness the many-headed hydra of urban regeneration as a means to realise a meaningful transformation of the urban environment?”

Yes and no, it really depends from context to context, project to project. I have only been involved in one major scheme, and that was in Denmark, where I was able to change the planners’ master plan through unique social circumstances. The project, officially completed in 2006, is now being transformed by the residents independently of the local authorities and I am in contact with them. But from my experience, the amount of compromise and negotiation is not compatible with how artists have traditionally been educated. The planning process is usually extremely complex, and the idea of artists making changes is pretty much a myth, even the critique of artists being able to make changes is slightly misinformed, but inserting a critique, is, I think still necessary. Architecture and urbanism has no real tradition of institutional critique.

In my experience, however, I find that the ‘hinges’ between different levels and forms of organization within a single field must first be lubed with — what is meant by — ‘institutional critique’ before that field’s professional would excel at the inter-field or interdisciplinary weaving together of areas. Hers with another.

Back last year a senior institutional ‘cultural operator’ and arts administrator who I generally respect said something ‘off’ to me. She said about another artist who was complaining of his pay in a project we all worked on, “I did not ask him to do all that.” By not kicking and screaming at its utterance I fear that I was co-opted. But I must admit it took me a while to pinpoint the pathology of the statement. My vista on the situation suggests to me that it was more like this:

  • Artist was asked to work on a big project with social implications;

  • Artist draws on multiple skill sets to prepare a proposal for the project, one which veers toward professional architectural standards in its form and therefore marketability;

  • The idea and iteration of the project (by artist) is very helpful in monetizing its first phase;

  • As an intermediary to the process, brought in for a direct management service on the first phase and despite my own role of artist, I may be able to observe dissent — and its root cause — without having the power to retrofit a ‘closed’ working budget to include an appropriate artist fee that was either (a) not asked for or (b) undervalued in the first place (depending on whose story is believed).

Artists are not so easily generalizable. But one thing I see again and again — look for rather — is the continuous thread of thought from one ‘increment’ to another (within a project) and from project to project. I relate to the very thing I observe in other artists. Once in conversation with Gabi, a friend who manages the atelier of Moustafa Dime — famed Senegalese sculptor and Gabi’s mentor/teacher — on Gorée Island off the cost of Dakar. The atelier is built into the ramparts on the edge of the island. I had asked how he explained his work caretaking the studio and making his own artistic work. He responded that he sees himself as a porteur de project, and that all the work he does — including teaching now himself — is a part of that project. I relate strongly to his approach. Yet there is an implicit ‘working against the grain’. For a very simple reason that the project will be an internal one. The artist will need to struggle a long time with its articulation. I have observed and I feel.

In his Prison Notebooks (1929–35), Antonio Gramsci — wasting away under Mussolini’s thumb — writes:

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

The ‘interregnum’ he speaks of is the same as The Endtimes of Human Rights (2013) that Stephen Hopgood goes at, and ‘the Coming Barbarism’ that Isabelle Stengers subtitles In Catastrophic Times (2009) with as she explores the ecological implications of a Pareto ‘optimal’ stasis while mired in the biological fantasy that we remain humane as we destroy our planet and deplete its resources. A happenstance that first levies hardship on the most vulnerable peoples at the bottom of the proverbial ‘pyramid’. In ways we can already very clearly see.

Saskia Sassen (2014) uses the term ‘expulsions’ — similar to Stengers’ ‘barbarism’ — to radicalize our understanding of the ‘rising inequality, poverty, imprisonment, foreclosed homes and other injustices’ associated with increasing disparities. Expulsions take on ‘specific forms in each location of the world, and they have specific contents in diverse domains: economy, society, politics,’ which means they tend to be studied in their specificity, but Sassen warns that this obstructs them being seen as ‘the surface manifestations of deeper trends that today cut across the familiar divisions,’ (2014). Such displacements, she argues, ‘share a simple, common element: There are people being (usually permanently) cast out of what had been their lives,’ (2014).

I’ve always imagined that Gramsci’s double entendre refers to people and systems — his peers, something local and of the time — as well as the death and birth of ‘forms’ quite broadly over time. I relate these forms he speaks of to the ‘structures’ (ethical theories of justice for example) that cannot yet come to support the present reality … in societal or local slices. Instead there is a global gerrymandering that has the a-national dominant culture parrot to the under classes — usually through patriotic rhetoric — what they should want and aspire to, deploying smoke and mirrors to convince that this ‘upward’ mobility is actually feasible … doable.

The art world’s purported ‘social turn’ can be traced economically — and philanthropically — to the panwestern subprime crisis of 2007–09.

From Ranciere to Foster to Bishop we have a pretty clear trajectory for the ‘return of the real’. A couple years back, there was a critical response from the art world’s leftwing when the Turner prize went to an architectural collective. This seemed to be a critique of the predictability of a utilitarian turn in the years following the subprime crisis, yet barely evoking the neoliberal economic system as the culprit who would abuse the literalness of form, its blue print rendered decipherable at last by the art world. While that may sound extreme, an absence of reference to the housing market’s subprime crisis as the primary catalyst changing the flow of culture money in the same period as the most recent social turn would seem to be complicit with real estate’s newly attained levels of access in art’s process, flaunting their construction sites as staging ground for a ‘site-specific’ this or ‘happening’ that. And, in this way, the urban intervention / built environment ‘sub-turn’ in the art world remains interior nuance, thus addressing ‘the real’ can only attain a ‘fishbowl to submarine’ telepathic agency from an art world dulled by its own conspiracy in society’s production.

At an individual level, that of the freelance, independent artist, I see that the birthing and forging of new forms — the heavy lifting as it were — is often thankless and long-haul orientations are not rewarded even if the art world’s notion of ‘duration’ is ostensibly complementary to some accountability mechanisms within the vocation of community organising. An essential vocation for ‘social turns’ I might argue.

“If forms lay claim to a limited range of potentialities and constraints, if they afford the same limited range of actions wherever they travel, and if they are the stuff of politics, then attending to the affordances of form opens up a generalizable understanding of political power,” asserts Caroline Levine in Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (2015). She continues that “A panoptic arrangement of space, wherever it takes shape, will always afford a certain kind of disciplinary power; a hierarchy will always afford inequality.”

I find Levine’s semantic breadth on ‘form’ a comfortable space in which to think, at first at a macro level where her framework is both connected and liberatory. For it to go further, I would have it smeared with some of the lifeblood that Gramsci evokes. I would take a quill of some sort and trace a blotted red line from instances of art world professionalism that ‘guarantee’ social deliverables — that speak to and against ‘the coming barbarism’ — while tacitly abusing group and individual labor to the micro-instance of ‘expulsions’ that must exist in all field. To its interior ill, a pathology that Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy explains so well:

Social practice has not been, is not, nor will be capable of achieving a better society because, just like corporate social responsibility, it is designed as a symbolic delirium of distraction from the inherent immorality of globalization. It is designed precisely like a “deus ex machina” of culture in order to avoid a historical turn anywhere but in a dramatic theatrical staging. Social practice, to the extent that it is attributed the dictatorial right of moral validation and at the same time does not achieve it in practice, is most certainly an ethical paradox, the “missing link” of culture under capitalism.

Artists, activists, community organisers, the general citizenry, and those who challenge ‘expulsions’ and ‘barbarism’ it seems — while forging and birthing new forms — will be seen as difficult.

Earlier I say that we can ‘very clearly see’ signs of the coming barbarism. It is meant as a provocation. I personally see them. I have a hard time imagining that others don’t. That the Pareto ‘correction’ happens spacially very far away — by proxy and/or the reconstructing of a range of derivatives — from the first instance and epicentre of shortfall. Expulsions are all around us.

Before the ‘smoke’ burns your eyes, look for the glint of the ‘mirrors’.

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