Pop-Up Neoliberalism

Welcome to the Olympic Park

I went today to see the Orbital, the monument by Anish Kapoor erected at the London Olympic Park. Or rather I didn’t because, as you can see above, people are not allowed in at the moment, while the majority of the site is being demolished and removed. What they suggest is going to the department store John Lewis to have a look from their windows. The whole place looked shabby and sad, leaving the Orbital as a memorial to pop-up neoliberalism.

I’ve been following the ArcelorMittal steel company that paid for the Orbital throughout a long-running strike in France, which has recently led to a recent showdown with the new Socialist government. However, almost all the UK media insisted that the Olympics were a grand triumph of Britishness and any such discussions were considered all but treason.

Get out to Stratford now and it’s not very uplifting. You can only dimly see the park through screens as you leave the station. You then have to walk through a branded shopping mall of the Prada/Hugo Boss variety. I went into one shop to get a pencil and, as I was just about the only person there, I got into a talk with the shop assistants. It turned out that these upscale segments were “pop-ups” and would be kept open only until Christmas Eve, when they would be taken down and all the staff would lose their jobs. Lovely timing, that. A nasty young manager, who obviously had a degree in marketing, came over to silence this unprofitable conversation between human beings. I went out to the back of the fancy shops and, sure enough, they were just jacked up boxes.

Pop up shops

The structure itself will disappear, as the Olympic site across the road already is doing, having ceased to be able to make a profit.

Not a hurricane, the end of the Olympic Park

Denied access to the park, I walked in the cold to try and get to see the Orbital. The architects had clearly thought about how to monetize even a sight of the place because the sidewalks were parapeted with little Berlin walls to prevent you from catching an unauthorized glimpse at 500 metres.

Nothing for you to see here

As you can see, a bit further down, the top of the wall was now lowered so you could see Mr Kapoor’s masterpiece. It’s a odd duck and no mistake.

Orbital by Anish Kapoor

Formally, it’s a mess with the extension from bottom left off into space on the right distracting and breaking the flow of the piece. It looks better from the other side, as I saw later from the train, but I couldn’t photograph through the glass. Even so, what is this? There’s a viewing platform on top of what looks like one of those terrifying circular exits to European car parks. The spectacle is, simply, the spectacle. Or was.

Except now that the tents have literally been folded, the view is of Stratford, an as-yet ungentrified part of the East End. Were you to get up to the top, you would see views like this if you looked east:


Of course, you’re not supposed to look this way. You were to look at the Olympic Stadium next door, smaller than I expected, or best of all towards the skyline of the City of London, home of all the most egregious scams of neoliberalism from CDOs to LIBOR and who knows what else.

Kapoor claimed an affinity with Taitlin’s legendary Monument to the Third International. Hogwash. What it actually looks like is a folded-in combination of the characters for pounds, dollars and euros: £/ $/ €. So I suppose that in a way, it really was the most appropriate monument that there could have been.

The Anatomy of Capitalism

There are eight of them around the livid corpse. It is a display of imperial power to a paying and wealthy audience. All but one them ignores the body. They look instead at the open book at the right hand side. Or in two instances, out at us, the onlookers. Another man, closest to us, takes a sideways glance. Meanwhile the one man touching the body with his metal implement looks high and away into the ether, astonished by his own sublimity.

These are, they have no doubt, Great Men. They don’t know the phrase “great men make history” because it will be said two hundred years into their future, but if they did, they would agree with it. The G8. The Great. Who are resolutely trying not to notice the death in their presence. Let’s call that death Capitalism. It’s an odd death because the G8 are trying to learn about life from it from the dissection and the anatomy lesson.

But these are contemporaries of John Donne. They do not ask for whom the bell tolls because they know very well. It’s for them, just as much as it is for the living dead corpse of Capitalism in front of them. Like the vampire, capitalism dies in a regular cycle, returning to a passive state of money before it goes off on the rampage again. The Great have always been confident that they know how to raise the corpse. Only now, some two hundred and fifty odd years into their undead lives, they are not so certain.

The tricks they have tried in the past have not moved the corpse in the way they have come to expect. But they are undead too and they have no others. Free trade, they say. Less regulation. Yet more tax cuts. But the ones looking out, rather than fixing their gaze at the book of all truths–maybe it’s now Ayn Rand they look at–know that things are not going so well. The corpse is that of a man named Aris Kindt, a thief. One of their own. So they cannot look at him.

Out in front of this scene was Rembrandt once. He painted them in The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp (1632). In its frozen tableau are both the certainty and fears of emerging capitalism. This weekend I found the painting reproduced in a book that I had first read many years ago by W. G. Sebald, called The Rings of Saturn. Having trouble sleeping, as I often do these days, I opened it and at once began coughing from its dust and the already decaying pages of the cheap British paperback.

Sebald lived in the U.K. although he was German by descent and wrote in that language. He is the supreme writer of melancholy, a German haunted by the twentieth century and living on the wind-swept marshes of East Anglia. Rings of Saturn begins by a meditation on The Anatomy Lesson and Sebald’s speculation that one of the eight was Thomas Browne, a poet of melacholy. Browne did one visit Tulp’s displays of erudition for the wealthy bourgeois of Amsterdam, so why not say that he is painted here?

As I tried to sleep, the image shifted in my mind, linked to the contemporary Anatomy of Melancholy by Richard Burton, and became the Anatomy of Capitalism. But that is to say the same thing. Melancholia, Freud reminds us, is mourning that has not been resolved. It is our refusal to let go of the lost object that keeps us in a state of melancholy, a condition in which we see ghosts. Which is not to say that the ghosts are not real. Must a ghost, I thought, always do the same thing? Hamlet’s father chooses when to speak and when not to speak. So does that other ghost that haunted Europe first but the United States later and more scarily, das Gespenst der Kommunismus, the ghost of communism. That ghost has had little to say for quite a while. Is it not once again in the wings, awaiting its entrance?

Why, I wondered, do those three Dutch merchants look out at us like that? Are they afraid we know something they don’t? Are they worried that we might come in and mic check the anatomy lesson? Or are they just keeping us in our place, the place allocated to us from which we may look at them and nothing else? In its lights and darks, with sharp perspectives, the scene is all about who can see what from where and what they make of it. What does Aris Krindt see as he lies there with his neck broken by strangulation–so civilized, Holland–looking up into the jowls of the burghers and their hipster goatees?

The Art History of Debt

Here’s the outline of an art history told from the point of view of debt. I devised this for a session of Occupy University held in an art gallery and at first it was just a bit of a joke but it came to seem that you really can tell the history of canonical Western art as a story about debt and commodification.

This painting by Perugino is typical of the transformation of pictorial space created during the Italian Renaissance, which is when the classic “Renaissance to Modern” art history survey class begins. Perspective depends on drawing all lines to a vanishing point, in this case located in the door of the church. This visual element reinforces the meaning of the painting in which Christ anoints Peter as the leader of his “church” to come. Visually, it depends on a space of nothingness, the vanishing point.

At the same period, this nothingness came to be drawn as zero, using the Arabic numeral ‘0’ for the first time. During the Middle Ages, zero was considered immoral precisely because it represented nothing, whereas God was everywhere and so there could not be a space of nothing. By the same token, interest, money that comes from nothing, was immoral. Zero was then instrumental both to the system of visual representation and the emergent capitalist banking system based on debt that paid for it.

Pieter Klaesz, "Still Life"

Pieter Klaesz, “Still Life”

Jumping ahead as we do in these rapid surveys, here’s a classic seventeenth century Dutch still life by Klaesz. It represents a debt financed economy on a set of levels. First, it depicts a group of commodities, including exotic imports like olives and lemons from the South of Europe. The pocket watch represents both advanced technology and the new importance of accurate time to commerce. Second, the audience is taken to be those people who know what these things are for and how to use them–even today proper use of cutlery and glassware in fine dining restaurants is very intimidating. So it reinforces the cultural as well as finance capital of the painting-owning class. The painting is itself a commodity, of course, and it indicates the patron’s refinement that he can afford this level of technical skill. In short, the painting creates a reality-effect in which speculation and the commodity are taken as the material basis of the concrete.

Audubon, The Yellow Cuckoo

John James Audubon, the ornithologist, by contrast turned from debt to natural history. Exiled from Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti) by the 1791 revolution, Audubon later started a mill in Kentucky but went bankrupt during the financial panic of 1819 and was imprisoned for debt. On his release, without any money, he decided to travel down the Mississippi and draw birds. Audubon had then gone through the collapse of two economic systems before learning how to sustain himself in the emerging knowledge economy of the nineteenth century.

Edouard Manet, Portrait of Theodore Duret

The history of modern art is nothing but the history of debt: indebted artists desperate to sell work, bankers and financiers becoming their dealers, other bankers and financiers buying the work. Above is a portrait by the independently-wealthy Manet of the banker-turned-art-dealer Duret. There’s a little miniature still life at bottom right as an acknowledgement that the painting depicts the new world of commodities and capital, in its mix of seventeenth-century Spanish Absolutism (via Velazquez, the grey background, the painterly style) and the painting of modern life (via Baudelaire, the depiction of modern dress and the bourgeois).

Degas, Cotton Office in New Orleans, 1873

Here’s Degas, son of a banker, painting his uncle the cotton speculator in his New Orleans office during Reconstruction. The people in the room are in debt because they lent money to the Confederacy during the Civil War. They’re about to rise up in support of “Redemption,” meaning white supremacy and the end of Reconstruction. Fittingly, the scene is dominated the white whiteness of the cotton itself, for which so much blood and tears were spilt.

John Singer Sargent 

Sargent paints the wife of a banker. A scandal ensues. Not for the first or last time, a woman becomes a debt-financed commodity.

Paul Cézanne, Portrait of his Father

Here’s Cézanne’s portrait of his father, a banker, reading the newspaper to see how his affairs are going. Patriarchal debt-financed authority here literally enabled the avant-garde.

Matisse, Souvenir de Biskra

Finally, a place where it all comes together. Matisse said of his work that he wanted it to be

an armchair for a tired businessman.

What it shows is a woman from the North African town of Biskra, a French colony, who we are supposed to think was a sex worker. So calling her a “souvenir” has the usual bought object connotation and the sense of a fantasized memory–the real woman did not have hips like that, for example. It’s colonial speculation at work–business–interacting with the sense of entitled play and commodified heteronormative desire to create the new normal of the imperialist world-view.

These paintings are not “just” about debt or just explicable by debt, of course. There is nonetheless a coherent way to tell the story of Western art from the zero of perspective to the emergence of the debt-financed dealer and today’s speculative global art market that is informed by the rise of the debt society. I wonder if anyone’s going to teach it?

Another World: for slow politics

Today a symposium at Artspace, Sydney, called Another World drew together art practice and activism. The talk ranged from Sydney to Germany, New York and elsewhere. There was a notable retreat, I’m glad to say, from such terms as “global art” towards questions of politics, debt, ecology and situatedness. We learned about time, to take our time, that this is our time and it is, of course, past time.

Zanny Begg, poster for Lucern

An artists panel in the morning featured an interesting contrast of global and local. Zanny Begg talked about her video with Oliver Ressler What Would It Take to Win? (2008)–the link leads to the entire piece. It covered the global justice movement protests in Heiligendamm (June 2007). What was interesting from the current perspective was to see the force of making no demands: wanting “wins” undermined the global justice movement. Whereas Occupy has been able to reclaim space and, crucially, time.

In that long time that it takes us to get anything done, an aesthetic relation is created between the people doing the action, whatever it may be. A project like the Rolling Jubilee, to buy and abolish debt in the name of OWS, might be an art work. Indeed, the curator Tom Polo mentioned a work in his show There’s a Hole in the Sky, now on in Campbelltown called “Commerce.” The artist purchased items from local bankrupt people, using his art budget, is currently displaying them and will give them away at the end of the show. There’s something very evocative about that action, in a part of Western Sydney that is known for high levels of bankruptcy.

In his afternoon talk, art historian Terry Smith contrasted different approaches to evoking the planetary. He called on Jorge Macchi’s work Blue Planet currently being used as the emblem for the Sydney Biennale as exemplary such refiguration. Macchi creates a “figure of the planetary” (Spivak) by emphasizing the oceans over the continents.

Macchi, “Blue Planet”

Elsewhere in in the Biennale, Smith found little to like with the exception of several projects, such as Jananne Al-Ali’s video project Shadow Sites II (2010) [see below],

a film that takes the form of an aerial journey. It is made up of images of a landscape bearing traces of natural and manmade activity as well as ancient and contemporary structures.

By comparison, Smith suggested that Documenta 13 in Kassel stresses the multiple temporalities of the contemporary. One claim caught my attention: that being on stage (I would say in public) actually creates time. The exhibition includes historical artifacts on this theme, like Charlotte Salomon’s Life? Or Theatre?,  her immensely powerful treatment of National Socialism.

Salomon, “Life? Or Theater?”

I do worry a bit about this, about always using National Socialism as “history” but the exhibition is in Germany and does feature work describing Kassel during the Third Reich.

The center of the show, according to Smith, is an installation called The Brain, centering on works impacted directly by war:

objects like two wonderful Giuseppe Penone stones, small Bactrian princess figures (2500 b. C.), six Giorgio Morandi still lifes, damaged objects from the National Museum of Beirut, a towel stolen in 1945 from the apartment of Adolf Hitler or masks made from iPad wrappings by Judith Hopf.

They even had a token Occupy space, a segment of the Documenta grounds turned over to a small encampment.

Together with the Berlin Biennale use of Occupy as a sideshow, this represents a clear, if not terribly important, attempt to co-opt the “cachet” of Occupy to render an art exhibition “political.” An occupation that is limited in time and space is just a zoo.

What did I take away? Moving past the politics of the “win” to a politics of transformation is a slow politics. It moves paradoxically quickly but it consumes time, takes time away from labor and leisure time alike. More pertinently, it tries to abolish that distinction. For the artist or the writer, there is no greater pleasure than “working.” A slow politics would allow that privilege to all.

Foucault Tourism

Today to Cockatoo Island: penal colony within the convict colony, industrial reformatory, factory, shipyard, UNESCO World Heritage site and now a venue for the 18th Sydney Biennale. The extraordinary bricolage of colonial punishment, industrial production and knowledge economy cultural production makes for one of those slightly dizzying jet laggy experiences you have only while traveling.

My British forebears did know how and where to build prisons, you have to give them that. The island is isolated in the middle of Sydney harbor, with the prison itself located on top of a steep cliff. Recent excavations have uncovered minute solitary confinement cells, which have a distinctly contemporary look in this Abu Ghraib era. The officials built themselves sandstone residences with a Georgian feel but placed at the highest point to give them a panoptic viewpoint. Grain silos dug into the rock still have chain rings, to which the excavating prisoners were linked while working. The prison was created right at the end of the transportation era in 1849–convicts were not sent to New South Wales after 1850, although they went to Western Australia as late as 1868.

As has often been pointed out, these colonial punishments add a totally different complexion to the idea that European jurisprudence had moved from physical punishment to mental discipline by the early nineteenth century. My view has been that revolutionary action in Europe won workers there a certain (if limited) reprieve from punishment; but colonial punishment intensified in the later nineteenth century as imperialism abandoned all pretension of colonial self-government in favor of direct rule from the metropole. That did not preclude the disciplinary formation of colonized subjects, as the reformatories attest.

In 2000, a group of Aboriginal people occupied the island and claimed it as sovereign territory. You can still see their murals, using the Aboriginal flag as a motif. Using the colonial doctrine of terra nullius, Isabell Coe and others asserted that Britain had never formally claimed the island, a claim rejected by the courts as “inconceivable.” Really? A deserted island on the edge of the harbor? Regardless, Coe created a tent embassy on the island and asserted sovereignty. The occupation of occupied indigenous land and the counterclaim to sovereignty was a powerful performative act.

This, then, is no ordinary post-industrial site to hold an art exhibition. The artists whose work was shown here seemed to be aware of the challenges and many rose to the occasion. I liked Jonathan Jones’s simple approach:

Jones mixed typically British crockery with sea-shells that might be found in an Aboriginal midden in what is now New South Wales. The intermingling is simple but effective.

A more complex approach was taken by Lebanese artist Khaled Sabsabi in his installation “Nonabel.” You enter a darkened air-raid shelter and see the reflection of a young boy in water projected onto the circular walls. All of a sudden, the image changes dramatically and a montage of Arabic calligraphy and sound installation made me jump, although the phrase being used in the piece apparently means: “if you destroy the image of violence, it will disappear.”

Khaled Sabsabi “Nonabel”

Finally Alec Finlay brought the location of imperial domination up to date with his sound and sculpture installation. To quote his description:

Finlay takes the fluctuations of the stock market and represents them as the ‘buzz’ of Australian honey-bees (recorded by sound-artist Chris Watson), broadcast from 10 multi-storied wooden hives. Each hive stack bears the acronym of a major stock exchange – New York, Toronto, Sao Paulo, London, Frankfurt, Mumbai, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Sydney – and produces a stream of audio, a buzzing that varies in density and volume in accordance with economic activity.

It was a remarkable sound, rising and falling with the market activity.

Alec Finlay “Swarm ASX”

What made it all the more powerful–although I suspect unintentionally–was that I came upon this piece in the Convict Precinct, just after reading a sign placed by the Sydney Harbor Trust. It described how, when the prison was first established, the prisoners were confined in wooden boxes at night. Is this what the favorite corporate slogan “thinking outside the box” actually means? That if you don’t produce useful ideas, we’ll put you in a box? Bees are said to form colonies. Others describe them as democracies or societies. Finlay also makes nests for “unproductive” wild bees out of books about bees. It’s layered symbolism like this that does important imaginative work, as we would do well to remember in our messaging and imaging in directly political contexts.

Poetry and Politics in Five Pieces

Like many of you I’m sure, I was sent a link detailing the ridiculous prosecution of a poet in California for his alleged part in closing a branch of US Bank on the UC Davis campus after the notorious pepper spray incident. On the Poetry Foundation site, I discovered a set of fascinating meditations by poets about the interface of their work and Occupy. I don’t know much about poetry and these poets in particular–perhaps they are very famous, perhaps not–but I thought the project was really interesting.

First, a note on the scandal. At the request of UC Davis, the district attorney in the area has brought charges against Joshua Clover and eleven students, blaming them for the bank closure. If convicted, the students face serious jail time and fines, and UC Davis will have passed the buck from the suit brought against them by the bank. You can and should sign the petition here.

On the blog section of the Poetry Foundation website, Thom Donovan has recently been soliciting responses to a set of questions about how the Occupy movement has influenced the work of poets. The replies are very intriguing and very different (let me reiterate my ignorance of the relative standing of these poets: I decided against doing Google research and to just react to the writing).


To my

great relief–

the world

Anne Boyer


In more or less familiar vein, I started with Brian Ang‘s call for a militant poetry:

By militancy, I mean activism that thinks toward the furthest limits in challenging the social text for the emancipation of humanity in its entirety, and executes actions as necessary toward this goal, often requiring strikes, occupations, and riots.

The somewhat surprising last word of this paragraph indicates how different the sensibility of the Oakland Commune can be to that of (most of) OWS. Also writing from the context of Oakland, David Buuck recalls how

Marx’s “the senses have therefore become directly in their practice theoreticians…” comes alive in the affective experience of bodies socially entangled in struggle, even if only over a single city block.

His example is this video of a contest between OO and the police:

So far, you might think, this poetic response to Occupy is not so distinct to the “mainstream” of Occupy. And that in itself is interesting–that there’s a poetry journal called ARMED CELL (their caps). This identification was not unnoticed by Ang, who became concerned that the

emphasis on immediate praxis made more palpable the radicality-diminishing consequences of unrigorous rejection of knowledges’ political potentials.  This led to the development of “Anti-Community Poetics.”



In New York, Anelise Chen recalls a very different reaction–a refusal to write at all:

An unexpected consequence of the resurrection: while the occupations were happening, I found it almost impossible to write. Something inside me had come to life, but it did not want to be at a desk.

Chen identifies a strong sense of contradiction in the movement between thinking and doing, which was certainly palpable during the encampment.

That tension is one of the reasons I started this project, to make myself engage in writing, even if the day-to-day requirement to do so has meant that I have not had time to think much about how I’m doing that writing. So I suppose I do it without thinking too much about how I’m doing it, as Chen suggests.


The piece I felt most affinity with, perhaps because she writes under the sign of a certain optimism, was by Jeanine Webb. It’s perhaps the most “poetic” of the posts and as a non-poet, I like passages like this about the collective work of the movement:

We thought a lot about these words: “underwater,” “connectivity,” “surplus value,” “conditions,” “spectacle,” “default,” “visceral,” “crisis,” “friendship.”

If I were to make a similar list about the keywords in this project, I think there would be: “duration,” “performance,” “time,” “debt,” “militant research,” “crisis,” “love,” “dis/ability,” “visuality.” There’s a lot of intersection.

Webb’s post is full of fun links, like this one to a Cut-up Collaborative poem on the Occupy Spring.

Check out the entire piece–this is a Surrealism for the Internet era. Or the link to Lisa Robertson’s essay The Cabins, where she describes life during Occupy:

I read Vila-Matas and Pierre Hadot in a low-rent stone house on the edge of fields in central France. I heat with wood. My neighbours are poor and are out ploughing or threshing til midnight. Everybody knows how to make something, and how to fix what they have. In a certain way capitalism has already left; the countryside’s emptied out, house prices keep dropping, no one can get a mortgage, the cars are old.

Likewise Webb herself riffs on the place of the square as a form:

For my part squares began to proliferate in my own work. Plazas, gatherings, architecture, riot cops, books and book blocs. But also literal squares: square text ornaments and poems in textual blocs. Then, long lines in advancing and receding waves. I began to collage, longing for immediate energies of cutting and pasting and for collaboration,* read Apollinaire again, looked at radical political images of the past, read histories, played a million songs on repeat, thinking of the mashup, thinking of aggregation and interplay, of how to represent the collective, but thinking most viscerally of friends, who I had danced with months before, many who were other poets, being beaten, pepper-sprayed and arrested.

I don’t write like this at all but I like the run-on sentences, the aggregation of terms and ideas, the sense of flow from past time–it feels like now but it has such obvious echoes of other thens. To my delight, she then intersects the formal square with the public square and anti-debt politics:

public squares again have begun to hum with energy, and today small red squares made of felt are proliferating on the thoroughways and quartiers and liens of Quebec, on the breasts of thousands of students and their supporters striking and rioting against crippling student debt and fees and cuts to bursaries. Like little safety-pinned echoes of Malevich, the symbol, they say, is a reference to the phrase “carrément dans la rouge”/”squarely in debt” which refers to their state of emergency, their invisible enmirement under weight. These bright squares cover the squares.

That “squarely in the red/debt” badge is a lovely metonym of the crisis. It’s what a lay person would call poetic.


On the Christmas of my death when
I swam by myself in the peeling
blue of the pool, and
the pines addressed me, saying:
take me to the riot

Ana Božičević

The Aesthetics of Occupy

If it seems surprising to talk about the aesthetics of Occupy, it shouldn’t. This is a movement that uses the term “beautiful” as one of high praise in a non-ironic way. Nonetheless, this is not the beauty so prized by the art world. Occupy has made an aesthetic from being out of place that has come to have a noticeable affect in the run up to May Day.

I’m describing Occupy as aesthetic in the sense of Rancière and, as he would say, the Greeks. Rather than signifying beauty, as it would for Kant, he intends

an “aesthetics” at the core of politics …as the system of a priori forms determining what presents itself to sense experience.

That is to say, if politics is the determination of relations between the visible and the sayable, there are certain forms that determine what can be “seen” and what is kept out of sight; between what may be said and what cannot; between what is said and understood, and said and not understood; and, finally, how we determine what it is to call something visible and sayable.

It is, then, not for nothing that the sign became Occupy’s first and perhaps most noticeable form. The classic Occupy sign is made on cardboard torn from a box and not bought specially from an art shop. It’s written in felt tip or Sharpie. The point is that it says something distinctive and interesting. One of my favorites:

This sign expresses what many were feeling at the time of the Liberty Plaza occupation and does so with wit and intelligence: it makes you smile and it makes you think. For some art world people, this is a “hand-made” aesthetic, perhaps a little past its sell-by date. My guess is that the person who made this is utterly unaware of that narrative and if they were, they could care less. This object was made to be seen but not displayed, let alone sold.

To really understand the aesthetics of Occupy, you have to get into what it means to say, for example, that the OWS library was beautiful.

OWS Library October 2011

Which it most certainly was. In part, that’s because it was a library that did not discipline its readers. It knew what it had, and what it had lent, but no one was under obligation to return a book if they liked it. There were no fines or people telling you to be quiet. More even than that, there was a sense that this was beautiful because it was out of place, unlikely and untypical. It challenged our sense of “what there is to see there” and, like all the Occupy sites, turned drab anonymous space into a place that had a certain magic to it.

You need to have felt that magic, which I’ve discussed before as being the gift economy of Occupy that worked even though it wasn’t supposed to do so, to get the varied ways that May Day has been imagined. On the lovely Occuprint May Day site, there are noticeably no Social Realist images, other than a few clenched fists, mostly from Oakland, where there is a historical tradition of radicalism and Black Power. More typical is this popular poster in NYC at the moment by Ethan Heitner (by the way, I don’t know any of these artists):

The hand-drawn image of kite-flying in a park on a sunny day nicely sets off the crisp graphic. It’s not whimsical, though. It’s after that “magic” that the aesthetics of Occupy offered: you shouldn’t be in the park flying a kite–an odd American insult is “go fly a kite”–you should be doing one of those things you’ve decided not to do for one day.

The image chosen for the most widely disseminated May 1 leaflet shares this aesthetic:

Detail of Nina Montenegro's poster

In this image, Nina Montenegro turns the “daily grind” into a visual image out of which new shoots of Spring are growing. The received image of the general strike, whether from Seattle on 1919 or Russia in 1905, could not be more different than such feminist imagery. It says a lot about what OWS thinks itself to be that it was selected.

Last, and perhaps by a short head my favorite, is one I’ve already posted but here it is again:

Elizabeth Knafo and MPA

Elizabeth Knafo and MPA have created a visualization of a theme that I’ve often discussed here–the sense of “movement time,” the way in which we’re reclaiming our time, both day to day, hour to hour and in general. The combination of a simple hand painted sun eclipsing the clock by which our lives are dictated and bringing a warm yellow light to a mass direct action: “Whose Time? Our Time.”

The posters tell a story of a movement that has indeed moved: seeds, flowers, women, the sun, kites, machinery only as the past, clenched fists to recall past actions. I’d rather see no fists at all, true, but it’s only been six months.

Once More Into the Debt, Dear Friends–at TEDx

I spent today at a TEDx event organized by NYU students. I was approached to participate by a woman who had taken one of my classes. I wasn’t sure I really wanted to do it, so, knowing that most of the organizers were from the Business School, I proposed a talk on the student debt crisis, expecting them to reject it. But they called my bluff.

So I presented the now-familiar cocktail (to regular readers) of $1 trillion of student debt, the 27% default rate and declining applications to high-cost institutions. I localized it by considering the rising debt crisis at NYU. At present some 55% of NYU students graduate in debt with the average debt amounting to just over $40,000.

Some of this is unintended debt. One young man came into a class of mine last semester smiling broadly. When I asked him why, he said that the loan office had given him four times as much money as he had requested. Horrified, I asked why he had accepted it and he said: “Free money!” If only it was. No surprise then that NYU ranks #6 in the nation for student debt. Ahead are a group of very much less well-known institutions, such as the Florida Institute of Technology and Barry University, scarcely the New Ivy company that NYU likes to claim for itself.

So we are all puzzled that NYU has launched an expansion plan that will build immense new towers across the middle of Greenwich Village, including a hotel. No indication has been provided as to how this will be paid for but NYU has announced that “[it] is not afraid of debt.” Perhaps it should be. It has been calculated that, if you use a low estimate of $4 bn. for the construction, the interest payments alone would be more than the current tuition and fees generated by the flagship College of Arts and Science.

The University is pursuing debt financing like never before at what may turn out to be precisely the wrong time.For other participants in the TEDx event highlighted the continuing impact of the global financial crisis, arguing that it was likely to redefine our sense of how markets operate–in this new context, debt is certainly something to be concerned about.

There’s another form of convergence going on, whose consequences are less clear. No less than three TEDx presentations highlighted the interface between new ideas about marketing, the viral idea, and the global Occupy movement. All the presenters wanted to see socially good results from this, but it’s not hard to see how others might try and appropriate it.

The concern about being co-opted is widespread in Occupy circles at the moment. Are the Move On 99% training sessions–direct imitations of the OWS Spring Training–which are patently directed towards promoting the Democratic Party, a good thing or not? We can take a positive view and see the progressive wing of the Democrats being mobilized by Occupy. Or we can be less sanguine and see the ideas as being diluted into the usual election-year boilerplate.

Berlin Biennale Occupy space

Another discussion is happening around the Berlin Biennale, one of the many global art fairs, hosting a space for Occupy (as above). Based on discussions with Occupy Berlin, the space includes recycling, a garden, an autonomous university and undefined action space. Here Occupy is rendered into a shopping list for a want-to-be radical art fair, whose ultimate rationale is the continuation of the global art market, the epitome of one percent luxury furnishing.

Yet the very packaged nature of the Move On and Berlin Biennale projects misses the key element to all viral memes–the unexpected. These gestures are so predictable within the context of two-party politics and art world solipsism that I’m not sure I can even be bothered to be annoyed by them.

The last convergence is the most obvious–the interface between Occupy and structured digital media platforms like TEDx, which is a licensed and carefully-filtered project:

  • TED does not grant licenses to those associated with controversial or extremist organizations.
  • TEDx events may not be used to promote spiritual or religious beliefs, commercial products or political agendas.

Given that, as Alessandra Renzi pointed out in her recent talk at NYU, many apparently familiar organizations are now being officially designated as “extremist” from environmental groups to art activist performers The Yes Men, you wonder how such filtering is applied.

Organizers of TEDx events always hope that one of their talks gets “promoted” to the highlighted section of the site. My guess is that a talk on student debt–especially one given by a surprisingly nervous professor–won’t make that list. Except maybe with a little help from his friends…now that would be unexpected;) Links to follow.



Research Practice: New Delhi

In trying to reimagine research practice, I’ve been inspired by Mosireen in Egypt and Observatorio Metropolitano in Madrid. The foremother of them all is perhaps Sarai, the remarkable New Delhi collective. Formed as an off-shoot of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Sarai has created a coalition of researchers and practitioners for the past decade.

Raqs Media Collective "Strike" (2011)

As befits, their legendary status in “new media” circles, Sarai maintain a comprehensive website that is at the center of their practice. Here they define their mission as:

a commitment towards developing a model of research-practice that is public and creative, in which multiple voices express and render themselves in a variety of forms. Through these practices that range from art practice to publication, academic research to the organization of discursive events, setting up of media labs and creative practices in locality labs in disadvantaged neighbourhoods of the city, reflecting upon the culture of freedom, in speech and in software, we have sought to participate in and cultivate a public domain that seeks to find a new language of engagement with the inequities, as also the possibilities, of the contemporary world.

So some distinctive notes created by Sarai are their involvement with visual arts practice as a form of research, “new media” work and software development and a commitment to openness.

Let’s quickly note a couple of these projects before thinking about the challenge they pose to activist research in the overdeveloped world. I am particularly struck by Cybermohalla–a word formed by adding the Hindi and Urdu word mohalla, meaning neighborhood, implying alleys, street corners, and a sense of place both in the city and online. Since 2001, this project has collaborated with young people in some of the newer “colonies” or districts of New Delhi. The hope was that:

if the space can draw a relation between writing, researching, experimenting, and tap into different forms of knowledge, modes of cultural expression and infrastructures of circulation of these within the neighbourhood, then it will be able to build new grounds of knowledge.

The knowledge generated in such projects is shared through print, visual and online sources. One example is the range of Sarai Readers on a range of topical subjects, available copyleft and free of charge on the website. The Readers differ from the Anglo-American model in that they give space to shorter writings than are typical in the academic context, often more experimentally written and less burdened with academic apparatus. There are substantive interviews with key figures, visual interventions and so on.

Some common threads link the different projects from India, Egypt, and Spain despite the very different contexts in which they take place. Each seems to serve as a key source of information regarding what’s happening in the giant cities created by financial globalization. While Madrid’s three million people would disappear into New Delhi, which has a population density of 37,000 per square kilometer, each city has been transformed over the past twenty-five years of neo-liberalism.

Perhaps it is the very belatedness of the impoverishing, distancing, hierarchizing effects of this moment of global capital’s transformation in its former capitals like New York that has been so traumatizing and galvanizing for us. We should start to look with humility at those who preceded us in this struggle.

Next, each group privileges making its work available free, producing it rapidly and in as many formats as possible. These tactics strike at the heart of the walled, gated communities that call themselves universities in the Anglophone world, always happy to think of themselves as elitists in the intellectual sense. Can we continue to assume that we can still be egalitarian in other ways while maintaining such hierarchies?

Consider these scenarios: a person wants to join your department/program/seminar having attended free, open classes previously. If it’s a class at the Public School with top academics like my colleague Alex Galloway, you’re going to be impressed. What if it’s a person you’ve never heard about before?

Will you consider publishing your own work free and open source? People worry about the imprimatur of double-blind peer review. If you want it, you can get it at Open Humanities Press. But this is not so simple. I’ve benefited from such reviews, especially for my recent book. I’ve also run foul of the system, where a person fundamentally unsympathetic to the project has been allocated to read it. It even happens to Gayatri Spivak, according to her talk at Left Forum:)

Set aside the bias question, and assume it always works for the best. Do we want this kind of closed door process? Would it not be preferable to have discussion in open ways? If material is published digitally, it can be corrected and changed easily as long as people are making comments or suggestions. If we find ourselves reluctant to participate in such interaction, perhaps we are less invested in change than we think? Or is the overload already demanded by the neoliberal university such that we simply can’t?

I’m for quick, direct, open publication but I don’t want to pretend it’s a panacea. It may be best suited to moments of rapid change and not so central when things are more locked down. I think nonetheless that we have to assume that the crisis in research, whether activist, militant, corporate or academic, is not limited to debt and funding but goes to the core of the project.

Occupy (and) the Art World?

There are so many artists involved in OWS and there are workgroups like Arts and Labor, Arts and Culture, Occupy Museums and more. But the official “Art World” was never that interested and now thinks it’s all over.

This morning, I click on a forwarded link for Holland Cotter’s review of The Ungovernables, the New Museum Triennial, and I read that the show is set

in the context of, among other things, the recent Occupy movement. The reference is getting old now, but you can see its point.

Here Occupy is a fashion point, referring back to last Fall’s talking points but getting a bit tired.

Why does the art world not get similarly tired of wealthy patrons dictating “taste” or indeed of the neo-liberal regime of the art market? Why is it not bored of Sotheby’s, the art auction house, locking out its union Teamsters Local 814 in order to reduce still further their labor costs? These staff are art handlers, so you would think you would want that job done well. Perhaps we get a clue when we learn that Diana Taylor, director of the board at Brookfield Properties, owner of Zuccotti Park, is also on the board at Sotheby’s.

Dahn Vo

The review is set under Dahn Voh’s We The People (pictured above). This is what passes in the art world for politics: fragments of a full size casting of the Statue of Liberty arranged tastefully in the by-now clichéd “propped-up-against-the-wall style” (indicates radicality, refusal to conform: by conforming to the new way to refuse to conform, see the last two Whitney Biennials at least). It’s vagueness leaves me, shall we say, bored.

Still from "Trainee"

To be fair to Cotter, a critic who has done a good deal to promote the understanding of so-called non-Western art, he does not miss the strong points in the show, stressing a

video piece, by the Finnish artist Pilvi Takala, is a triennial highlight. She made it in 2008, after taking a job at an accounting firm. After some training she took her assigned desk and sat there for a month, doing not a lick of work, just staring off into space, breaking the routine only to ride the company elevator repeatedly up and down. Her fellow employees were friendly at first, and curious, but soon grew wary, then hostile, as it became clear that her spaced-out behavior was going to continue and that she wasn’t going to explain.

[link added]

But he misses the politics here altogether. It’s not just “an accounting firm”–it’s Deloitte, the accountancy giant, with $12 billion in revenues in the US and $28 billion worldwide 2011. Because, as my grandfather used to say, accountants are the only people who work in a recession, they have actually grown since 2008. Many of their people go on to become Conservative MPs or House Republicans. In their own words:

“Deloitte” is the brand under which tens of thousands of dedicated professionals in independent firms throughout the world collaborate to provide audit, consulting, financial advisory, risk management and tax services to selected clients.

This is code for one percent firms and one percent anti-tax politics.

Here you can see [not embeddable] that Takala is not completely silent but evasive with her colleagues. While riding in the elevator, Takala claims to be a student working on her thesis, and that the elevator is a congenial place for her to think.

Takala’s durational performance is a modern version of Bartleby the scrivener, who, in Herman Melville’s story, responds to all the injunctions of his Wall Street legal firm with the now immortal phrase: “I would prefer not to.” The term “prefer” becomes viral in the law office and all attempts to remove Bartleby by firing him or by force are unsuccessful.

Takala thus occupied Deloitte at a time when their work undoubtedly involved processing the ruins of the financial disaster. Instead of carrying out this task, she asserted her claim to “prefer not to” and spends her time in thought. As a trainee, she was not supposed to think. She is not supposed to be out of place.

The exhibit calls her “ungovernable.” We would call her autonomous. It’s not a fashion, and it’s certainly not a “style.” The art world doesn’t get it. Occupy it? Actually, I think I would prefer not to.