e-flux ‘Art After Culture’

e-flux did their NYC edition of ‘Art After Culture’ cumulative conference, after the Rotterdam, Paris and Berlin versions.  These are the basically un-edited notes, full of gaps, errors and mis-interpretations.  Link to the event, and to the live-stream (though the recording isn’t up at time-of-posting).

Brian Kuan Wood’s talk is best intro and key para is below, but in summary (written ex-post): Basic premise was that avant-garde has historically (pre-WWII?) been a revolt against ‘culture’ (pace Adorno).  Since late-1990s, culture-industry has morphed into a juggernaut, injected with steroids of global capital & consumer technology.  Crucially, culture today includes most art, as artists eagerly join a system-of-spectacles that eagerly welcomes them.  Examples: (we can layer identity-driven origin stories onto any of below to enhance ‘authenticity’) zombie formalist painting, crutches-foam-liquid-and-plastic sculpture, the High Line/Shed cultureclusterfuck, or yet another AI-generated painting.  Sessions’ underlying premise was that capitalism is nearing some sort of event (triggered by climatic collapse hence a question of when, not if), the denouement of which we might not be around to watch, hence have to speculate upon via the meta-tool of art.  Does critical art have any scope to step outside culture, and more generally how can we criticise something we don’t really know, sitting myopically inside it as we do?

Intro to conference, read by Brian Kuan Wood

Boris Groys, “The Museum as the Cradle of Revolution”

We can’t have a meta-position on the world, being in and of it.  Museum as one of few things in our world that is not quite fully contemporary & offers something like a meta-position. They are meta-objects, heterotrophic spaces.

Artwork is what remains after a culture disappears. As anti-commodity – not meant to be used/consumed, whereas art is prevented from being destroyed. Remains alien as it passes down to a future culture.

Art confronts us of history of losses, not one of progress only.

Benjamin Angelus Novus on apocalyptic condition leads us from future to past via present, and the direction of travel (as we hit the eschatological boundary, a zero-bound in monetary policy metaphor?).

We are like time at end of 19th c, when there nascent national consciousness (i.e. today’s identity obsession), oligarchy, hypertrophied financial sector. For the reactionary class (white in the West but also applies to India, Turkey, China) past becomes genealogy and decides present position. Need to think about post-humanity, for cyborgs technologically produced identities are more important than inherited ones.

Nietzsche view of world – reaction to end of history of Hegel.  American superman is a slave of sorts (winning or a compulsion to win is a sort of slavery) – he is helping all the time. Nietzsche’s übermensch is indifferent to living or dying (‘…he plunged into the market=place, an eddy of arms and legs….[Zarathustra says] “You have made danger your vocation, in that there is nothing contemptible” ‘).

In bourgeois society everyone is measured by his usefulness. Contradicts enlightenment ideas of Kant – man cannot be useful, howsoever laudable the societal goal posited for that usefulness.

Only when image & text loses its informational characteristic it becomes artistic. Defunctionalisation.

Avant-Garde creates meta tools, not informational but transformational.

Independent Group first exhibition of pop art – art found as the archaeology of a lost civilisation. Art placed amongst rocks & ruins.

We live in a time that erasure of information/content is the erasure of our selves, but while we can think we erase the info, it never disappears.  Our role is only as content providers – another form of universal slavery.  Hence the Avant Garde is impossible today (BG’s students reckon).

Looking at, or touching it, painting create subject-object relationship. Can go back to look at it countless times, it doesn’t degrade (notwithstanding Duchamp in Chatelet via Gillick) Looking at digital images creates a data trail, viewer becomes part of it & is recorded/monetised.

AI and fear of death as central to our thinking. ‘Human should produce something better than him’ -Nietzsche. Fukuyama ‘end of history’ is mis-understood – as one influenced by Alexandre Kojève foresees a fusion of man and machine. This is still the fascist idea of self-improvement. We are still fascinated by a feudal past (Game of Thrones etc.). Feudal ideas are being brought into AI.

Obsolescence – what happens to a cyborg tomorrow? What to do with obsolete human machines. World, and humanity, become cabinet of curiosities – obsolete things constantly being generated.

Second issue is deterministic answers of a computer. Only machines which mis-behave – do not do what they are supposed to do could be an AI/cyborg

Boris Groys & Hito Steyerl contributions

Hito Steyerl, “A Campfire Story”

AI neural network that is trained on fire, and predicts the next few frames in the animation. Fire as metaphor for technology (Prometheus, but also Plato’s cave [see below]). And helped create society through cooking, required co-operation to keep it safe, shaped landscape by burning forests, etc.

Culture is predictable whereas art should be more unpredictable. Art is the digestion of the unpredictable so we can understand – combination of unpredictable with something familiar as a way in for the viewer.
Divination in traditional non-western society as way for inviting contingency into the a bleak terrifying present rather than contemporary (modelling, statistics, simulation) prediction & risk-management. Pyromancy was divining through fire in Renaissance.

The GUI attached to the fire neural net has its controls named after socially critical things like 0.14% female job success factor.  Most of the GUI is not operational, a few controls change the look of the fire.

Productive apparatus of ruling class is a predictive apparatus.

Yana Peel‘s ownership of bete-noir Israel surveillance company NSO is an awkward and messy affair, basically an object lesson in much of the conference’s themes.

Liam Gillick, “To The Gardeners of the Creative!”

Chatelet – to the gardeners of the creative. See Gillick’s essay in E-flux 100.

Franco “Bifo” Berardi, “Pleasure, Desire, and Evolution”

The animating presence of the entire thing.

Capitalism is based on permanent desire & endless postponement of pleasure. Deleuze & Foucault disagreement on the term, Baudrillard has commentary on this distinction.  Bifo has spent 40 years writing about desire, only recently does he note the difference with pleasure, onset of senescence (if not the senility he professes – sharp as tack).

We think ‘[our] life is private property’. Carlo Rovelli thinks fear of death is an evolutionary mistake. We must taken an epicurean approach to death.

Today we are not seeing fascism – this was thing of young, energetic, will to power. No one expects a bright future today. ‘No future’ is conventional wisdom now. Futurism (in Italy anyway) was a movement that felt nation, family etc. and to some extent allied with fascism to develop a plausible ‘national’ narrative. Today we see hopeless nostalgia, impotence, desire for revenge (against reason) – supremacism is ‘old people’s fear’.  Voting demographics in US and UK are major exhibits (tho fair number of young nutters abound). Racism is today a fearful reaction rather than an expansive thing (the colonial and imperial projects were expansive, controlling, active) – rear-guard not vanguard. Don’t mention the left – neoliberal left has given up on transformative change and reason (instead becoming servant of yet another financial algorithm). See Horkheimer & Adorno ‘dialectic of enlightenment’.

Salvini simply continuing Marco Minniti’s policies as interior minister of the PD – left & right very similar.  See Blair, Clinton, etc.

Donna Haraway says human extinction would not be a tragedy. Extinction is core of today’s political position – how do you rebel against extinction? Bifo points out extinction isn’t the worst thing – compared to a long-lasting, drawn-out agony of a slow starving, suffocating death (Soylent Green).

Catherine Malabou . Psychology has been taken over by sex & language – but today’s problems are brain problems not mind. Evolution must be rethought. How can the brain, conditioned by desire, find pleasure at this stage in history.

Talk dedicated to Nanni Balestrini the dead poet (Who never wrote [anything new?], simply recombined what he found in the world, heard on the street, saw in flyers)…

Bifo Berardi (cont’d below)
Bifo Berardi (top), and Irmgard Emmelhainz

Irmgard Emmelhainz, “Shared Meaning Beyond Representation?”

Arendt ‘lebenswelt’ (world-in-common). Replacement of community by mass society results in alienation. Guattari’s loss of relationality. Collective psychic collapse is the other side of ecological collapse. Arendt saw loss of world in common leading to fascism.

Today we have mass mood swings managed by a corporate state – identifying 1% and immigrants as the two forces that are taking away from ‘us’ (substitute for the pronoun: U.S. [white] middle class, ‘true’ Russians, touchy Hindus, proud Turks, etc.).

Art 1990s onwards became identity thing where artists would (or rather, could) only talk about themselves (often just about appearance), covering contradictions & conflicts with thin veneer of humanism.  Art as something that is trans-historical, trans-geographical went out the window (albeit returned as homogenised mass-culture today).  Today culture is either management tool for mass society or art as merchandise. Critical artists have been forced to criticise the globalisation system – this is the replacement for vanguardist position. Both merch & representation create a non-universal , non-common meaning.  Both instrumentalise art – e.g. art culture wars become litmus tests for how ‘democratic’ a place is (Serrano Piss Christ is old example).

Despotic empathy rules. Artists is martyr seeking representation as spectacle, and his/her story/image is more tragic/powerful/intense/worthy-of-attention than all the others. Reified subjectivity & alienation. The world is divided between wretched of the screen & those privileged to watch them as spectators.

Laika pads silently by.

Debord: what has come between human relationships are images & representation.

Actions are only made meaningful by spoken word – according to Arendt. But only makes sense in ‘being-with’ (in a community). Despotic empathy destroys the in-between.

In decolonisation context need ‘incommensurability’ (presumably because hard to rank different culture’s works without context of their histories and contemporary realities, though comparisons perhaps can be drawn)?

Don’t confuse relationality with relational aesthetics (Glissant angle?).

Capitalist society is a foreign power with which it is impossible to interact.

Mary Walling Blackburn, “Technologies of Ancestor Phantasy for a Final Generation: from the Gnome’s Genome to Trash DNA”

Lovely talk, sadly no notes….

Mary Walling Blackburn (cont’d below)
Mary Walling Blackburn, continuing into Reza Negarestani, Charles Mudede


Wood convenes panel with Berardi, Emmelhainz, and Blackburn

Celebration of extinction – pornographic triumphalism as (in a fiction Wood read) humanity having trashed earth, decides to use rockets to nudget it to some other galaxy.  He quips, ‘once you’ve done that, why not fix the NYC subway?’

Bifo: we see today the end of ‘courtesy’ (in Italian, ‘cortesia’ connotes/implies [perhaps via Castiglione??] the ability to ‘linguistically elaborate desire, sex’).  But today the screen intermediates everything. He says ‘a loss of definition’ is inability to (linguistically) deal with bodies of others.

Emmelhainz: Buffalo skinners were people who existed pre-formation of Western U.S. states, didn’t want state to coalesce as that might result in regulation. They were tribe-less people & escaped slaves – marginal people who benefited from being marginal in a marginal place (pre-state).

Anjalika Sagar (Otolith): you don’t learn empathy by hanging out with humans. It is learnt by pets, traumatised horses (what Emmelhainz does as a job), gardening. Maksha concept – Bifo responds there is nothingness, but only before and after consciousness, Mentions a Lebanese film where 12 year old denounces his parents for bringing him into the world  during the kali-yuga.

Bifo: optimistic vs pessimistic brain. We are actually close to best of possible worlds, elimination of labour. But we cannot actualise it – the majority cannot think in terms of equality, solidarity & freedom from work, we cannot imagine moksha or freedom from samsara. Nor is it his place to preach, he is open to unpredictable. ‘We have to watch out for the unavoidable, but it rarely occurs anyway because the unpredictable intervenes’ -John Maynard Keynes.

To long winded question about ancestors: Bifo says his main project is to forget his ancestors, to betray his ancestors. ‘Community & identity are totally fake today’. ‘We must understand identity but must get away from falseness of community, of ancestors, but embrace singularity, the nomadic. ‘ Hito: story of a Bosnian immigrant in US who misses roasted lamb but can’t find a lamp, so must buy it in pieces & staple it back together to have an integral lamb. We too have lost the original lamb.

Bifo: Increasingly AI, swarm intelligence, neurology are intersecting (Malabou again) so we must think if intelligence as a social brain, a network brain. Can a changing social brain thinking about the transformation in itself?

‘Sovereignty is an efficient fake’ it starts with Machiavelli & (usually male) potentate taming (female) fortuna or nature. Doesn’t apply now because situation is too far gone, and in climate collapse, nature would seem to have won. Bifo reckons we might get to the utopia of autonomy, but first will be the trauma of collapse [St Augustine’s ‘God make me pure, just not yet’ followed by some vigorous whoring] .

Reza Negarestani, “APNE: The Art of Making Intelligence”

‘What is the art of making general (ie qualitative) intelligence?’ Sensory, perception, comprehension are 3 pillars of AGI.

Riddle of perception arises from Nelson Goodman (riddle of induction in ‘fact fiction & forecast). Observation & perception are never neutral – ‘how do we know what we perceive at the same time as experiencing it is a sensory state’ Projectiles: complex predicates (material props, linguistic props, perceptual props). Reality is a construction where we project. See this.

Can we see what is in front us?

APNE construct new perception by re-arranging it’s perceptual (sensors?). One wor(l)d can be many according to its mode of diversification and many wor(l)ds can be one according to mode of integration. APNE has aesthetic that is neither pro- nor anti-representation & is concerned with building topoi that intervene with world at multiple levels.

Only thing I got out of Reza’s talk: we see emeralds as green up to time t, and blue afterwards (but we don’t actually see them). This would be same as grue emerald, where predicate ‘grue’ encapsulates this colour/perception variability. It’s how a machine might see not encumbered by our entrenched descriptors.  Feels in CS terms, something like a variable or encapsulation, where colour (which is bound to our experience), is abstracted or wrapped within another word (object, variable, etc.) that incorporates mutability.  Didn’t get how this connects with anything else, see link above or Intelligence and Spirit.

Charles Mudede, “There Can Be No Advanced African Technologies Without the Angel of Death”

He recalls a curious image – watching filming of rubbish film ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ at Great Zimbabwe.  African men in suits, working in the financial district, would arrive as extras (one had to be connected to be an extra on a Western film), and be promptly dressed up in grass skirts to fit the cinematic image.

Colonials said Great Zimbabwe could never have been built by mere Africans, they obviously don’t have the technology.  Mudede reckons in a sense this is true, the technology disappeared and contemporary Zimbabweans couldn’t built it.

Great Zimbabwe was forgotten – this gives the lie to Hegelian narrative of steady progress of humanity, of Geist. Hegelian narrative/continuum is really a capitalist one, only about 400 years from Dutch times – constant technological progress.  In the West there hasn’t been a societal collapse (Zimbabwe, Persepolis, Bronze Age Collapse).

Cultural and social are not identical.

Azrael the angel of death that destroys in order to rebuild – this is capitalism narrative according to Joseph Schumpeter – moving capitalism forward in time.  Not sure this seemingly creative destruction, supposedly good in the long run, took account of what we call an externality – climate change. Abbadon as the angel who truly destroys.


The Otolith Group, Nucleus of the Great Union

Single shutterstock image as backdrop alternating with green-screen, black-screen. Lots of simple 3D rotating scaling of flat images in space but they were basically exploring a certain (Yale?, digital) archive for a photographic exhibition. Richard Wright (1953 trip to Gold Coast) in Ghana are the images. Commissioning email is part of the work – desktop is deeply embedded & repeated and syncopated on the when. Random quotes that confounds meaning, held together by powerful voiceover in parts almost like a speech has been intervened, stopped stuttered like DJ. desktops floating in space create physicality . No distinct start. Images are slow and repetitive. Almost Japanese flute playing adds dissonant note. Kodwo: green screen (acts as non-image) alternates with black screen – walk diagonal of existence of images as TIFFs and archival images.

Nkrumah : Ghanaian nuclear programme, triangulating British/Soviet influence, ‘the new nuclear imperialism’


Panel with Negarestani, Mudede, Otolith, Wood

Plato cave is akin to a cinema with fire (ref Hito’s pyromancer) projecting light. Wood talks about how containers (archive, video) are porous to that which lies outside it, a virtual space.

Kodwo: ‘platformalism’ when platform becomes formalism – ‘TIFF is the artefact that you have and you have to work with that – taking seriously the digital object’. To theorise enslavement is to already be somewhat free from slavery. Cold War and colonialism transition into capitalism – Brathwaite poem – United Fruit Company worked with CIA created a Guatamelan coup, these are the limits of decolonisation since capitalism still manages to roger the South. TIFF is weightless by virtue of its reality as data – this is the promise & threat of the digital.

Anjalika: there is no past or future, just a now imminent / immanent(Vedanta)

Reza: 2 functions of the cave, a political and an epistemological one.  Epistemologically, he mentions a drawing Plato describes in a preceding dialogue, 2 lines creating 4 zones – (….),(….),mathematical, Forms. In order for us to see/perceive something (say the Forms) we need something that preceded it (mathematics). The political angle – Plato based the cave on Syracuse, apparently his ideal city. You can only get to the good, but need the imagination to be able to see it (??)


Couldn’t stay for remaining sessions on Keller Easterling, New Red Order and Ruanne Abu Rahme/Basel Abbas (abstracts above)


Watching Brexit From Sicily

It has been curious to see Brexit unfold, from southern Sicily. In Noto, a stunning Baroque town, albeit rather gypsy-ridden, our queries to waiters last Friday morning at 8AM were met with befuddlement. Similarly, the tourist information lady, glancing at her purple nails, denied all knowledge of the EU but grudgingly acknowledged the possibility of a mayoral election in the next village. Saturday morning, at Caffe Sicilia, the best gelato/sweet shop in Sicily, the cosmopolitan staff were veering between despair & resignation. But by Saturday night, in Ortygia, with its marina of large yachts, one could pick up snippets of conversation amongst hordes of Milanese businessmen. The bronzed thirty-something French couples at dinner were chatting about Londres, the tragedy of the young, in between mouthfuls of linguini con ricci. Even the Gazzeta Dello Sport, Italy’s version of a serious pink broadsheet, was leading with analysis of Brexit.

The FB/Twitter hand-wringing & hysterical calls for a second referendum seem, besides their implied disrespect towards the 52% that voted to exit, to focus far too much on impact on the UK. Granted, the metropolitan elite in London have lost the warm & fuzzy feeling of being ‘part of Europe’; while a long-planned move to the Costa(s) or Puglia might have to be re-thought. Science & culture will undoubtedly suffer through loss of funding, and Cornwall apparently misses its EU cash infusions (I thought only Third-World Countries got development aid?). Still, the British electorate, whether Remain or Leave, may ruefully appreciate the possibility of Britain finally being rid of loathsome financiers as banks choose to migrate operations into the EU.

That aside, I’m not sure how anyone can have any clear view on what will happen finally, given that we seem to be stuck at the starting-block: the gun has been fired, but no one is in a rush to trigger Article 50. It would appear, until that is done, the entire question remains in limbo – hostage to the fascinating ritual fratricide of the Tories & the (mostly irrelevant) idiocy of Labour. A deux ex machina to move things along can perhaps arrive via a second referendum, court challenge, or HM addressing the nation as she memorably (if inadvertently) did on the occasion of the Chinese Premier’s visit.

But that’s the UK side. What the markets are telling us though, is that most of the worry, at a geopolitical level, is for the EU itself. European banks have taken a beating in anticipation.

Centripetal forces continue to imperil an incomplete project that only lurches forward through increasingly frequent existential crises. I can see a fork in the road. On one hand, the core EU countries can double down on unification : try to push the ball forward on fiscal & banking union, now that the tenacious objections from London have (presumably) been silenced. Yet, my suspicion is that even within the core EU, both leadership & electorate, there is little consensus on increased centralisation, consequent loss of sovereignty, erosion of  democratic accountability, and the fiscal transfers that would be needed to overcome deep economic imbalances.

The other, more likely, possibility is that the noise around Brexit, and the more urgent nationalist movements in Italy, France, even Germany, will further hamper the move towards federalism and induce more paralysis. Although the Spanish election seems to have gone okay this weekend, Italy remains the one to watch: its banks are undercapitalised, while Renzi has been a disappointment. A referendum this October looks eerily like the UK one, a protest opportunity for an alienated electorate combined with a promise from Renzi that he will resign if he loses. Recently, voters, disgusted with corruption, have elected mayors in Turin & Rome from Beppe Grillo’s insurrectionist/anti-Euro Five Star movement. In the background Umberto Bossi of the secessionist Northern League watches events calmly, puffing on a cheap Toscano cigar.

Yet the elephant in the room, even if the Remain campaign sort of politely ignored it, is the clear inability of the EU to control its external border. Sicily remains on the front line, though the scenes of 2 years ago have been better managed by Italian authorities – back then there were hundreds of migrants sleeping under the sun in Catania’s port and we were shown the remains of a wrecked migrant boat in Siracusa’s coast guard station. Tourism is the main earner here in the south, and efforts have been made to not present tourists with scenes of chaos. Yet one need only go into the outskirts of certain towns here or talk to the locals to see the social stress induced by large-scale migration into an economy long plagued with unemployment. And of course, many migrants have rapidly moved up the Italian penninsula, arguably with support of local Mafias, and onwards to Europe. It is fear of this ‘Other’, to use the term fashionable in London’s cultural/academic circuit, rather than the apocryphal Polish plumber commonly cited in the Brexit debate, or the nuances of gross vs net transfers to the EU, that probably did most to influence the voters in Hull and Huddersfield.

Unfortunately, the migration problem appears insoluble, in the short-term. To a certain extent, it is the result of an enthusiastically interventionist policy, on supposed ‘humanitarian’ grounds, in N Africa (Libya). Yet a pragmatic non-intervention (Syria) hasn’t worked well either. If one is monadically pre-disposed, one can plausibly link the migration problem to water scarcity, climate change, flawed integration policies (France), excessively permissive multiculturalism (London), or of course, the original sin of France and Britain in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Ironically, the relatively benign Italian colonialists of Eritrea & Libya are reaping the bitterest fruit at the moment.

In summary, we are probably seeing the clash of several inconsistent pressures, playing out on the European stage. For the UK: a long-term desire to benefit from the 500m strong common market, selling them services (financial and otherwise), while assiduously avoiding many of the associated constraints and obligations. For the Leave camp as a whole: an incoherent mishmash of free trade, buoyant house prices, unfettered finance, reasonably open borders that somehow manage to keep out said Others (but possibly let in Polish builders who, after all, do a rather good job). For many Labour voters and so-called progressives: an equally incoherent, if less well articulated (they weren’t at Eton after all), shibboleth of anti-capitalism and workers’ rights (except when said workers vote the wrong way in an otherwise correctly-constituted electoral process).

And of course, the EU continues to embody a great mass of inconsistencies that are unlikely to be resolved before it is torn into pieces. However – the EU, as envisioned by Monnet, Adenauer, Schuman, and de Gasperi, was always a work-in-progress, a bureaucratic capolavoro that would, by concrete steps, each individually boring and unimpressive, achieve a de facto union. Brussels, having neither the power of autocracy nor the fiscal clout of a modern nation, is reduced to governing via regulation. It must impose a degree of uniformity across the bloc – in the hope that years of dirigisme may, perhaps, create a political unity out of centuries-old plurality.

It is also natural that the path is littered with failures and fudges.  As another great European – whose mix of idealism and brutal pragmatism would be useful today – said: ‘Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable, the art of the next best.‘ (Bismarck)

In any case, the step-by-step approach didn’t reckon with the pace of events post-2008, that have often rumbled the EU into action. Moreover, the project is built on a certain foundation of sand: one need only spend time travelling through Italy to see the deep antipathy & distrust that separates North & South – a mirror of the EU’s own divisions. While many young London-based Brits might see themselves as European, and plenty of young Italians have decamped to London in search of opportunity, it’s not at all obvious that institutionally or culturally, the average Sicilian is particularly keen on the promises of enlightened rule from Brussels. Possibly rightly, he has internalised Don Fabrizio Salina’s recollections on Sicily’s 2,500-year history as a colony.

All the punditry notwithstanding, no one is sure how this will ultimately play out, and most likely we will all become bored with it within the next few days – never mind 2019, the presumptive end of the Article 50 timeline. But we can take great comfort that the UK’s negotiating team, and such Anglophiles as still remain in Brussels, will have ample guidance in back catalogues of Fawlty Towers & Yes Minister !

Pronounce to rhyme with ‘Basil’: BREXXX-IT !!!