“I consume, therefore I am”(Jan, 2018)

(Angelus Novus, Paul Klee [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

I hate creation. Not only that I actually struggle in the process of making, but I hate the use of the word ‘Creation’. I hate it’s obvious link to christianity and structural hierarchy between maker and receiver. I hate the idea that something can be made from nothingness. It feels like a negation of relation and history.

‘Production’ is by no means a nice word, but still better than ‘creation’, because it is secular and doesn’t hide its relationship with economy.  We make art in relation to the economical system, and there is a clear partnership with consumption.

But we all know that, historically, late 20th century avant-garde art dissed (or resisted, to be nicer) production[1]. Increasing pressure of industrial production since the end of 19th century changed working class citizen’s sense of time and space, and the gap between traditional art making and modern production method became bigger and bigger, while industrialisation was ideologically worshiped. Idea of production cost and efficiency started to affect artists, and they were required to work with ‘deadline’.  With the “great acceleration” around 1950’s[2], this gap was no more possible to fill or resist, and totally new strategy was required. As a result, consumption was directly linked to production by avant-garde artists mainly in the second half of the 20th century. The best example still is “Readymades” by Marcel Duchamp, who predicted this movement already in 1910’s[3]. Short-circuited loop between production and consumption challenged the economical system on the level of aesthetics. But is this resistance still valid in the 21st century society?

Art theoretician and philosopher Boris Groys wrote in 1999:

“The contemporary artist, in a way, just consumes and follows this self­ destructive logic of the art system, using reproductive art techniques to demonstrate the ambivalence of the notion of creativity. The theoretical foundation of the closed, exclusive art system seems to be destroyed by this deconstructive argumentation. (…) The difference between the artist and the spectator, or between the insider and the outsider of the art system becomes irrelevant: both are mere user and reproducer of the already known possibilities of making art.  Everybody is an artist.“[4]

I would like to remind you that this text is written about 5 years before facebook, 7 years before macbook, and 8 years before the first iPhone.  As I am writing this on the very last day of 2017, it seems more than obvious that “Everybody is an artist” nowadays. Established methods of photography are conveniently available as filters on your smartphone camera apps, and one can exhibit their work with just one click. This is the way current IT products are designed and marketed. It is a strategy to make everyone consumer of art, producer of art, and ‘consumer=producer’ of art.  ‘Professional’ Artists now produce by consuming theories, critique, history, and methods.  They make mundane objects and ideas interesting, consumable, and even give them economic value.  Entirely new objects are rarely being made, as there is no more time, space or resource to invest in the making of art.  Duchamp had an eye of the consumer. His invention was to change the perspective of traditional art consumer, bringing awareness to the institutional function of museum and illusion of the art market.

“(T)oday’s artist is not a producer but an exemplary, model consumer of art. The contemporary artist does not practice the production, but the ostensive consumption of art, and the art system is transformed now into a place where such ostensive consumption is demonstrated.  Accordingly, the contemporary art spectator does not consume art products produced by the artist. Instead, he consumes the exemplary art consumption – practicing the consumption of second degree. “[5]

Spectators are not consuming artwork itself anymore, but they consume the way artists consume. In a way, artist remains in exemplary role in the society. It is not that artists are respected, but neoliberal economy integrated artist’s lifestyle and spread it to others. Everybody works and lives like an artist. Under the austerity measures, people work and live on project basis through and through. Without any financial stability, they execute each project to get by everyday life. Their present time is foreclosed by project goal, based on which present society is contradictory functioning. Future is already decided and we need to make it happen, even if it means that there is no agency in this lifestyle.

I have been claiming “slow reading” as an artistic practice. If we consider reading as an act of consumption, it is also possible to consider reading as contemporary act of making art. In fact, I presented this practice as an installation work in May 2017. In the project description, I wrote: “This simple yet generous exposure of what is at work proposes the question to the neoliberal scheme of production, and reveals what is at stake in the current discourse of art, through the  stimulative communication mediated by the text materials presented.”[6] In Groys’ words, I presented the way I consume the text material as a work. Spectators consumed the way I consume, and through the conversation  based on what I presented, they would intervene into the future work that is yet to come. There is no clear landing point, and it shakes my future goal, therefore it challenges the idea of project as well.

By no means I claim this something new. Back in 1967, Roland Barthes stated that the author had died and reader was born[7].  This means that the reader became the new author.  Text is something that is written for the future reader, but it is just a wreckage of words, if not activated by the reader.  The work is realised only by reading, consuming.  Barthes was obviously influenced by avant-garde artistic movements of 1960’s such as Pop art and Conceptual art, that reversed the relationship between production and consumption. I would like to put emphasis on the fact that what Barthes calls “reader” is not equal to traditional consumer, but to contemporary artist as consumer.

Now we all wonder: If they are all consumers, then, who produces in the present context?

Wait… This is supposed to be my punchline, so let’s keep it until bit later. Before thinking about ‘who’, I would like to argue that ‘what’ is produced through contemporary art practice is not classical aesthetic values such as beauty or sublime, but knowledge and power. And through the production of these forces, aesthetics intervene with politics. In the appendix of “The politics of aesthetics”, the translator of the book Gabriel Rockhill summarises complexed notion of the author Jacques Rancière’s aesthetics and politics.

“(A)esthetics refers to the distribution of the sensible that determines a mode of articulation between forms of action, production, perception, and thought. This general definition extends aesthetics beyond the strict realm of art to include the conceptual coordinates and modes of visibility operative in the political domain.“[8]

Aesthetic domain has never been unpolitical. It was always engaged in communal or governmental politics, took a part of subjectivation by making people belong to certain categorisation of community.  It sets limit on what can be seen and said, followed by spatio-temporal arrangement of participation inside the common world. This process is what Rancière calls “The distribution of the sensible”[9]. Now this process is more effective than ever, when the subjectivity is regularly undermined by temporal and economical pressure of the austerity policy as I pointed out before.  We are in constant state of emergency, where anything can be rearranged at anytime. We are required to be on our toes. From this unstable subjectivity, project based lifestyle takes away present time and replaces it with mission.  The future is already moving ahead based on the assumption that these missions will be successfully accomplished.  These teleological subjects are flexibly subjectivated, ready to give up themselves of now, in order to not fail in the future. In other words, present only exists to serve for the unforeseeable future. It is no co-incidence that Mindfulness and other forms of meditations are very popular in recent decades, especially among those creative workers with flexible lifestyle.  They are in desperate need to contemplate present moment, to protect themselves from being overridden by mass-produced subjectivities. Good news is that this aesthetic intervention to politics is not unidirectional. I believe that resistance to the politics of mass-subjectivation can also be achieved through aesthetic practices.

On the other hand, consumption is not just a simple act of buying, but it has physical dimension. Life needs this dimension of consumption to maintain its ecology.  When the life is dominated with temporality of project, there is barely any time to consume and digest. Therefore we need to rethink the ecology of consumption in relation to the distribution of the sensible — it is not only a matter of will and desire, but also a matter of space and time.

For the second time, this struggle is by no means anything new. Walter Benjamin’s famous analysis of Paul Klee painting “Angelus Novus (The New Angel)”[10] suggests that even in early 20th century there was no time to stop and consume. The angel wants to go back to rescue the wreckage of mass production, but unable to stop because of the storm forcing the angel to move ahead. This storm is what we call progress. We live in the world where this storm stopped blowing for a while. Some wants it back, trying to force artificial wind to blow, but if we had been wanting to go back to collect the wreckage of modernity, now seems like the perfect opportunity to do so. In 2017, not only the ones with exclusive talent, but everybody can go back and rescue the wreckage. Despite its obvious naivety, this seems to me the only positive reading of “Everybody is an artist” in the time when the artists are also consumers. 

Klee’s painting, or Benjamin’s text can be consumed again, and its aesthetic opens up the new distribution of the sensible. If I may go back and give the postponed answer to the question “Who is producing in the current context where everybody is consumer?”, I would say it is “The New Angel” who had been waiting all these times to save the wreckage. In fact, the angels are the works themselves which old generations left for us such as “Angelus Novus”. These works were directed towards future consumers, hoping that  someday the time will come for them to return, for these past ‘artists as producers’ could not do so. ‘Artist as consumer’ was born from the requirement as such. “The new angel” still moves us to act.

Throughout this text, I examined the relation between production and consumption, and how artist’s role became closer to that of consumer through the history of contemporary art. At this point, I would suggest contemporary artists to consciously look into the act of positive consuming (read, cite, learn, eat, waste…), as a means to fight against the pressure of neoliberal economic requirement; to resist the project-based temporality, to look back at the wreckage, to create a new ecology of production and consumption, outside of modernistic requirement of economical progress.

In the last 20 years, there is an attempt to emancipate the role of spectator through manifolds of discussions and practices (i.e. Relational art). Whether if this has been successful or not is up for another debate, but I would claim that  the side of ‘artist’ as consumer needs emancipation as well. This is because the distinction between maker and receiver had vanished as they are now both  consumers of art. In fact, we are all consumers. Barbara Kruger’s ”I shop therefore I am” doesn’t function as a simple truth or critique in the current context. Instead, I would like to suggest “I consume therefore I am” as a possible new mode of thinking, not to praise the society of mass-consumption, but to bring awareness to the consumeristic  nature of life. The time has finally came to take consumption seriously, instead of naive and generalised critique, based on clear cut dichotomy against production[11].

As I had claimed before, resistance to the politics of mass-subjectivation can be achieved through aesthetic practices. This process consumes one thing more than anything else — time. It is not that the past commitment of such resistance failed and we are here to ‘create’ new means to fight, but we might be a part of the enormous journey which needs that much time. We are just too used to project based temporality, making it super difficult to see what we are doing in continuation from the past generations.  As the final remark, my question is: how can we consume what was produced as the resistance for consumption?

//HK//

 

 

Notes:

  1. Many of avant-garde art movements from the first half of the 20th century often worshiped production and industrialisation ideologically. Russian avant-garde, Futurism, Art-deco are typical example. This doesn’t mean that the artists at the time were not struggling to adjust to the new temporality of modern production
  2. For a brief explanation of “great acceleration”, see http://www.igbp.net/globalchange/greatacceleration.4.1b8ae20512db692f2a680001630.html
  3. Duchamp was a part of cubist movement painters in Paris, but his 1912 work “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2” was rejected by the group for being too Futurist. This was decisive incident for his departure from what he called “Retinal Art” and soon after he started working on Readymades. (As a reminder, Futurist movement is deeply related to aesthetic of speed and industrialisation. I wonder if Readymades can be seen as super Futurist, as it suggests that the production of art can be as fast as the modern industrial technologies of production) His disappointment to the art scene kept growing, and he virtually suspended his artistic career, to become professional chess player in 1920s—until artists in 1960s brought him back to the major art scene as the icon of avant-garde.
  4. Groys, Boris, “The Artist as an Exemplary Art Consumer “Filozofski vestnik, XX P. 90.(2/1999 – XIVICA)  PDF file downloadable at https://ojs.zrc-sazu.si/filozofski-vestnik/article/download/4067/3774 (accessed on 1/1/2018)
  5. ibid. P.90
  6. see http://www.hokutokodama.com/choreographic-projects/i-am-at-home-reading/
  7. Barthes, Roland, “The Death of the Author”, from Image, Music, Text.  P. 142-8 (1977, London: Fontana Press).The text was originally published in 1968.
  8. Rancière, Jacques, trans. Rockhill, Gabriel, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. P.86 (2004, New York/London: Bloomsbury Publishing) Because of the complexed conceptualisation by Rancière, Rockhill added glossary of technical terms as the appendix to the book. I cited from this glossary for the sake of simplicity and clarity.
  9. ibid.P.7-14
  10. Benjamin, Walter, ”Theses on the Philosophy of history: IX” Illuminations. P.257-8. (1968, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World). Citation follows: ”A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”
  11. Kruger’s “I shop therefore I am” is obviously a paraphrase of Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”. Descartes is often criticised for his insistence of the body and mind dualism, and this quote indicates his position to hierarchically place the mind over the body. On the other hand, Kruger used her phrase to criticise the society of mass consumption where we are constantly exposed to the pressure to shop. By saying “I consume therefore I am”, I have no intention to place consumption over production, or to criticise consumption, but to point out the fact that consumption is a basic act required to maintain our life, therefore it is inseparable with production, and even with the mind and the body.