Week 13 – Shezad Dawood – 30 March-5 April – The Room

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Part 1: Art For All

The fig-2 openings are getting hectic. I think some bastard has been publicising them. This isn’t how counter-culture works. It’s more like.. in the year 2009 full-time Eddie Redmayne impersonator and occasional guest on Star Trek Professor Stephen Hawking threw a party for time-travellers. Afterwards he sent out the invitations. Nobody turned up. Nobody had turned up. He cited this as experimental evidence that time travel will not become possible. My own experimental evidence is more cynical: that we don’t remember the birth of Christ with a sponsorship placement on it. The Emirates Birth of Christ. Wow, that’s confusing. How about ‘The Barclays Birth of Christ – investing in irony.’

I’m kidding about counter-culture. Fig-2 is sponsored and paid-up and part of the mainstream, whether us hipsters like it or not. I’ve been to most of the increasingly popular openings on me tod, avoiding eye contact and scribbling in a notebook. Various people I know have to my surprise popped up there randomly, which has been lovely. This week, lucky Week 13, I must have been tired. I arrived and there they were, these two nightmares from one of my previous lives, suddenly manifesting at my pretentious gallery opening. Two poets, as it happens, representatives of a beaten tranche of the counter culture that has given up on political agitation and gone to nihilism, rejecting everything including itself. Why were they there? I’m not sure. There was the gin. In the truncated time I stayed each managed to knock back three or four of the free cocktails. I kept wondering if they were going to smash shit up. I hadn’t really realised that counter-culture can also mean anti-art. Immediately it was obvious they were not there in an accommodating positively minded spirit.  I gritted my teeth, ready for something embarrassing to happen in which I, by virtue of knowing them, would be implicated. Which publisher was it said he’d sooner have an armed robber in his office than a poet?

I’ll have to invent a term for this experience, when characters from one area of your life suddenly irrupt into another, the clang of cognitive dissonance. You’re at Torture Garden being spanked and suddenly discover it’s your line manager in the next sling. It’s interesting how we separate people and realms. Colleagues and friends. Friends and ‘friends’ (qv Facebook). It might be that, but as I said it’s usually lovely when you bump into people randomly. This felt like a clash of cultures, with me crushed in the middle.

Regarding the art, the crowd, the space, they were unfailingly rude; but had at least the good grace to be rude about every single thing they talked about. I’m not sure which of the creators of fig-1, Jay Jopling or Mark Francis, they meant when they referred to “Cuntface.” As for the ICA, it hasn’t been exciting since 1955. I got the strong impression they thought all art was shit. Everything, really. Just everything. I’m sure I even detected weird homophobic inferences coming out. One of them even drew attention to the university staff card hanging around my neck, and somehow inferred some kind of disapprobation, an obscure subtext of contempt for paid work that made me feel somehow lame for having a job. I suppose to nihilistic counter-culture this is being in cahoots with the capitalist machine. Like voting; with the election coming up, we’re seeing plenty of argument that voting is endorsing the whole sick machine, so you shouldn’t vote. And as for art…

Not everyone in New York will pay to see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s face. Not everyone is a critic. But, fuck it, everyone hates art. Everyone hates criticism. So… art criticism?!?!? Jesus. What am I doing? I mean, my pal Sid thinks I’m a twat just (well, not just) because I’m on twitter. Donald has refused to read any of my fig-2 blogs on principle because he is against any and all forms of Criticism. It’s said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. I’ve always thought dancing about architecture sounds ace!

There’s a strong belief in the mind of the counter-culture that mainstream culture is dominated by cabals of powerful individuals working to exclude the rest of us. The art world is notoriously cliquey, so crony credence abounds. Unpublished novelists might become convinced that mysterious powers are suppressing their work. It was interesting to see the irruption of two figures from nihilistic counter-culturalism into the rarefied domain of fine art. Private Views are gurningly good-natured two-faced affairs. That’s what they’re for. Networking and stuff. They are exclusionary. Even when they’re open to the public like the fig-2 openings.

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Part 2: Who Rules The World?

For Week 13 of Fig-2 Shezad Dawood created an animation that nods to ideas about posthumanism and secret esoteric societies that decide the destiny of humankind. Two brothers in Saffron coloured hooded robes, reminiscent of Philip Guston’s cartoonized KKK figures talk about Shangri-La in a weird landscape inhabited by Maoi (the Easter Island heads).

In his fig-2 interview Shezad Dawood says the reason he chose to make an animation was because he wanted to “do something that would surprise people in terms of expectations of practice.” Now, artists should never do this. It’s the equivalent of a band you’ve never seen before announcing “This is a new song!” — darling, to me they’re all new —

Brother P wears an adaptation of the muted trumpet from the postal service in The Crying of Lot 49. In Pynchon’s novella evidence accumulates of a secret underground postal delivery service called the Trystero, which might be a conspiracy, a practical joke, or a hallucination, indicated by arcane references on bus windows and toilet walls.

Brother S has an adapted symbol of the Pharaoh Kih-Oskh in the Tintin book The Cigars of the Pharaoh. The Kih-Oskh Brotherhood is a vast criminal organization smuggling opium throughout Egypt, Saudi Arabia, India and China, in fake cigars, with strong systems of communication and transportation and intelligence operating covertly within all levels of society.

In an amusing random continuity, Fig-2 Week 12’s Tom McCarthy has written an entire book analyzing the Tintin cartoons from a structuralist perspective. He notes that Hergé’s politics move from right to left wing during the course of the books. In Cigars from the mid-thirties the villains are “typical enemies of the right, key players in the great global conspiracy of its imagination: Freemasons, financiers…” and, of course, Jews. By the 1970s, as a consequence of World War II, the politics of the Tintin books has shifted over to the left to the extent that in Tintin and the Picaros the hero sports a CND logo on his moped helmet. McCarthy notes that “there remains the interesting paradox that, despite his political realignment, Hergé keeps the same villains in place: men in cagoules, the secret cabals of Cigars of the Pharaoh, serve as straw men for his leftist world-vision just as well as they did for his rightist one.”

In essence Lot 49 and Cigars of the Pharaoh are expressions of the question “Who rules the world?”

In his series The Secret Rulers of the World Jon Ronson goes behind the scenes of the Bilderberg conference, the annual grouping of the elite that has been accused of being a “secret government of the world”. According to the “American Friends of Bilderberg”’s press release “Bilderberg’s only activity is its annual conference. At the meetings no resolutions are proposed, no votes taken, and no policy statements issued.” Highly mysterious. If it doesn’t rule the world, then what exactly does it do? Daniel Estulin’s The Secrets of the Bilderberg Club describes “sinister cliques and the Bilderberg lobbyists” manipulating the public “to install a world government that knows no borders and is not accountable to anyone but its own self.”

Conspiracy theories exist to address our fear that the world might be completely beyond anyone’s control. It’s a theological impulse, to combat the uncertainty that is inherent in supercomplex systems such as economies and societies. There are certain things we just know (echoing Rumsfeld). Scottish mineral water from Tibet: we know it’s tap water from Peckham. We know a ‘no reply’ means ‘no’. We know the Emperor is in the nip. We know. Look. It’s quite simple. Jewish Islamist Masons in the KKK built Easter Island. It’s obvious.

The world government is really just Capital: money markets that transcend national borders and to which states and governments are in thrall. As David Graeber notes the state is no longer a bulwark against capitalist rapaciousness, but works with it hand in hand. Let us also remember that fine art is capital; owning a verified Rembrandt is a securer investment than owning a flat in central London. In short, if you are not with the boorish anti-art vision of the counter-culture, you are propping up the whole capitalist system.

How do you win? You can’t. The game is rigged. Even your dissatisfaction has a dollar value. There’s that Clash lyric: “Turning rebellion into money.” Counter-culture is culture sold over the counter. I’m a sell-out and so are you. At least Tracey Emin is honest and happy about being a Tory voter. She’s happy because she’s won.

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Week 12 – Tom McCarthy – 23-29 March – Satin Island

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Present: Tom McCarthy (author, installation artist), Fatoş Üstek (curator, mathematician), Clémentine Deliss (curator, researcher), Alfie Spencer (Flamingo Group Head of Semiotics), Mark Blacklock (author)

Apologies: Claude Levi-Strauss (anthropologist), Levi Strauss (businessman), Bronisław Malinowski (anthropologist), Guy Debord (situationist), Paul Rabinow (anthropologist of “the contemporary”), Alain Badiou (thinker), Roland Barthes (semiotician), Jacques Derrida (deconstructionist), Douglas B. Holt (author on brands), Daniel Defoe (novelist)

  1. The Book

I find myself in the position of the narrator, U, in Tom McCarthy’s book Satin Island, surrounded by screens and data, trying to synthesise raw unconnected toomuchinformation into narratives. There are four elements: the Show, the Book, the Think Tank, the Company Report, and the Interview. There are five elements.

Satin Island is “a book about the general impossibility of writing a book about the general impossibility of etc.” U (a poor man’s Ulrich from Musil’s Man Without Qualities) is a corporate anthropologist who has been tasked with creating The Great Report, “the First and Last Word on our age.” To this end, he scrolls through countless images, circling around various obessions: oil spills, cargo cults, ethnographic objects, critical theory, the transport system in Lagos, the mysterious death of parachutists. Like Shakespeare’s Autolycus he is a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles. The book documents these obsessions but can’t unify them.

ACTION: The reader will consider whether the artistic success of the book at representing (even dramatising) the unassailable rag-bag nature of information/knowledge while revelling in curious and interesting detail, is achieved at the cost of the literary failure of the book, inasmuch as we are given a plotless novel with no proper characters or satisfying meaning. What are novels for, anyway?

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  1. The Show

I wondered if it was just a marketing exercise, turning the book into an installation and having the whole text read aloud (flatly as a “Company Report”). It turns out that Tom McCarthy is no stranger to the gallery space, and the book itself grew out of a 2010 residency projecting oil spills. In Satin Island, U creates vast dossiers from unrelated material, sticking them up on the walls of the offices of the Company and trying to find connections, like Beuys diagrams, or Benjamin’s Constellating Dots. Stage designer Laura Hopkins designed the space, littering it with U and McCarthy’s source texts, images and scrawled connections. It was an effective representation of the book, maybe with a cheeky viral bit of marketing thrown in.

ACTION: The reader will consider whether in fact all the work that takes place in any gallery space is in fact just a marketing exercise, and ask whether what is being sold is an idea, or the work, or the career of the creator of the work.

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  1. The Think Tank

The Think Tank aimed to trace anthropology through corporate culture and literature through a ‘brain-storming session’ that was actually somewhere between a lecture and a seminar. A “golden triangle” was postulated combining literature, corporate culture, and anthropology. This was an exposition of the book, but interesting in itself as an interrogation of meaning-making and information gathering in several different spheres. Fatoş Üstek (who as an undergraduate studied topology) mind-mapped the event on a huge wall mirror, “curating in a semantic sense”.

Clementine Deliss (curator, researcher, publisher) discussed anthropology and ethnography, and asked probing questions about the impulses of ethnographers and museums. The anthropologist is a ‘bug chaser’ a collector writing everything down in detail, but Levi-Strauss himself advised that we should forget objects and study culture and behaviour: the oilspill of modernity.

ACTION: The reader is asked to consider what is the nature of hoarding, classification and acquisition, and whether it can be subversive when there is also immaterial culture. If authenticity refers to a local identifiable product of one culture, how do we refigure authenticity in the context of globalisation?

Alfie Spencer (the amusingly titled Head of Semiotics at the Flamingo Group) presented a theory of branding in relation to the meaning-making. Beginning with his self-definition “I brand (verb) the way an author says ‘I observe, I interpret’” and that his position (which is analogous to the central character of Satin Island) is at an intersection between production, commerce/business and capitalism. He helps corporations make money by analyzing what it is to brand versus write versus interpret. There is a confrontation between how objects resist language and can be made to ‘speak’ via branding. Writing remakes, interpretation asks what it can do within a form of life, and branding makes a future for it. In this sense, branding is a process of closure, whereas writing is open.

ACTION: The reader is asked to consider whether writing would love to be branding, whether interpretation lusts after branding’s finality, and to consider this in relation to a novel whose open form resists closure, and further to consider whether the ambition of branding is the same as that of propaganda, and whether Alfie Spencer is therefore a tool of The Company, a footman for the Ruling Class Apparatus, forcing final forms on us.

Mark Blacklock offered up literature as a site for “speculative anthropology” and discussed Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe is a corporatist, a bookkeeper, reducing everything to information, just like U in Satin Island. Information gathering becomes the central theme of Defoe’s novel too, which is also tied to the acquisitive research methods of ethnographers in putting together collections of objects that create narratives about societies.

ACTION: The reader is invited to consider whether to answer Blacklock’s call for “an anthropology of solitude” with regard to Robinson Crusoe, bearing in mind Alix Mortimer’s priceless tweet: “To get your New Paradigm name, take your real name and put An Anthropology of… in front of it”

Mark Blocklock also reported that “Robinson Crusoe spends three years using his craft to craft a craft – a boat – which when finished can’t be moved, so it becomes a sculpture.” I love this in and of itself, but this is also a teleological point that reminds me of one of the paradoxes of ethnographic objects: that whatever their original purpose was, once they are put on display they become art objects.

ACTION: The reader is further asked to consider whether this pipe is or is not a pipe.

  1. The Company Report

The reading of the complete book out loud was a homage to On Kawara’s One Million Years, in which huge ledgers filled with all of the dates from a million years ago to a million in the future are read slowly and neutrally, monotonously. Perhaps McCarthy intended this to draw attention to the contrast between vast empty timescales and the overwhelmingly data rich present.

ACTION: The reader will consider the meaning of alluding to On Kawara in the performance of Satin Island being read out loud in the style of a ‘company report’ and whether this is a comment on timescales or the sheer implacableness of data.

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  1. The Interview

The author Tom McCarthy claims that authors are byproducts, that to think the author is the source of meaning is like saying a plastic bottle is the source of the water it contains: it’s a straight-up category error. The author is a byproduct of literature. There are author patches swirling around the Pacific Ocean as we speak, redundantly and useless. Yes, meaning is a bundle of relations that goes back centuries and forward too, but in Barthes’s seminal essay he announced the death of the author and even now people act as if it never happened. What digital culture pushes to the forefront is not even the death of the author or even the redundancy of an act of writing, but the question of which routes to pursue, the methodology of navigation. This is what the Situationists were asking; they saw things as simple as walking the ‘wrong way’ round Paris as an act of resistance and as an artistic practice. Not for nothing does the book Satin Island share the same initials as Situationist International.

ACTION: The reader is called upon to consider what writing is, and what writing would be if everything is already written. How can we understand a writing or literature that would operate differently? Can we imagine a form of writing as resistance to grand narratives, devoted to opening up ambiguities?

ACTION: The reader is asked to consider whether Tom McCarthy is a byproduct.

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  1. Any Other Business

Grand narratives are back. Okay so there’s no codex unlocking the master meaning of the age, but there is a master programme, and it is being administered by Apple and Google. The Company. The Corporation, Leviathon, processing vast amounts of data. Every keystroke is sold to the NSA. Apple’s locked-down battery-flattening PC-poisoning products now fill me with as much dread as the horrific self-belming output of Microsoft, the tech equivalent of those dreadful Hollywood movies that are obviously stamped out by committees rather than creatives. Is Google’s motto still “Don’t be evil”? I can’t even remember.

The world is literally being remade: the Universal Texture is a rather terrifyingly named Google patent for mapping textures onto a 3D model of the entire globe. Sometimes this goes wrong, and for a moment the workings of the Universal Texture are exposed, and it’s like being Neo seeing the Matrix, or a glimpse of the Mind of God. Clement Valla has a wonderful project documenting examples of these surreal/cubist mistakes in Google Earth when large structures are reconstructed wrongly.

ACTION: The reader is asked to consider the question “Who might inhabit these landscapes?”

How do the totalising corporations get away with it? Satin Island’s Koob-Sassen Project is explained away thus: “It is… a pretty boring subject. Don’t get me wrong: the Project was important. It will have had direct effects on you: in fact, there’s probably not a single area of your daily life that it hasn’t, in some way or other, touched on, penetrated, changed; although you probably don’t know this. Not that it is secret. Things like that don’t need to be. They creep under the radar by being boring.”

In David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King we also learn about the efficacy of ennui to make invisible, to stifle politics: “The real reason why US citizens were/are not aware of these conflicts, changes, and stakes is that the whole subject of tax policy and administration is dull. Massively, spectacularly dull. […] The IRS was one of the very first government agencies to learn that such qualities help insulate them against public protest and political opposition, and that abstruse dullness is actually a much more effective shield than is secrecy. For the great disadvantage of secrecy is that it’s interesting. People are drawn to secrets; they can’t help it.” (85)

U’s relationship to media is almost gnostic, pursuing a deep secret that is forever elusive, a Godhead beyond the veil. It is fundamentally a literary relation. The whole world is an encrypted text. McCarthy notes that we can trace this back to a theological impulse – the world was a script for god. Not to mention structuralists, and he notes that Walter Benjamin’s and Jacques Derrida’s epistemologies come out of Jewish mysticism. Digital figurations are fascinating but not categorically new.

ACTION: The reader is thanked for reading, and invited to have a lovely day. Do comment!

Date of next meeting: Wednesday 22 April, London Review Bookshop, Tom McCarthy in conversation with Nick Lezard

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