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<nettime> Review: Critical Strategies in Art and Media, Trowbridge & Wes
atrowbri on Thu, 13 Oct 2011 11:04:02 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Review: Critical Strategies in Art and Media, Trowbridge & Westbrook

Hello All,

After asking permission to publish our book review in May 2011 and
being slightly rebuked, we wondered if it even made any difference to
share our hope for a contemporary approach to insurrection. We had
taken our own surrender to heart and decided to wait. Recent events
have shown our skepticism to be unfounded and we are sharing this now
only to support those in the Occupy*, especially Occupy Wall Street,
who have thus far refrained from naming demands---from, as Foucault
put it, "demand[ing] of politics that it restore the ‘rights’ of the
individual, as philosophy has defined them." No demands, no checklist,
no politics as usual. "The group must not be the organic bond uniting
hierarchized individuals, but a constant generator of
de-individualization." Occupy EVERYTHING. No demands. Occupy, occupy,
occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy,
occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy,
occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy,
occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy,
occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy,
occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy...

In solidarity,
Adam Trowbridge and Jessica Westbrook

“Originally published by Theory in Action, Vol. 4, No.2, April 2011 (©
2011) DOI:10.3798/tia.1937-0237.11017 www.transformativestudies.org”
(The text below is pre-editor copy, apologies for errors)
Thanks to Eva Swidler, Book Review Editor, for requesting our review
and John Asimakopoulos, Editor in Chief, for publishing it.

Critical Strategies in Art and Media.
Edited by Konrad Becker and Jim Fleming. New York: Autonomedia, 2009. 182 pp.
Paperback $12.95. ISBN 978-1570272141.

Eleven years into the new century, it may be time to discuss terms of
surrender. Not a surrender to any civilization but the surrender of
civilization to those in control who would use any political
participation as a crutch for their failure. The question is not if
but when giving up on civilization will be seen as the only rational
political stance. Currently, the critical strategy of removing oneself
from a failed situation and ceasing participation in a bankrupt
enterprise is rarely given serious thought1. Giving up is constantly
under attack from politicians and those who benefit from the current
situation. Activists remain in the service of an imagined future that
only extends the crisis, unable to wean themselves from strategies
already four decades old. This is the case in the discussion
documented in Critical Strategies in Art and Media, a new book from
Autonomedia that documents a conference of the same name. From the
predictable return to 1968 as a vague yet singular moment to the
insistence on optimism —recuperating even hopelessness and pessimism
for continued production and activity— the most common strategies
discussed are pragmatic approaches to working with those who fund art
projects. Little discussion occurs concerning critical art practice
beyond hopeful slogans that parallel Nike’s “Just do It”. While there
is much to consider, discussions range from the role of technology in
the 2009 Iranian elections protests to art student interest in digital
media, little is covered with any critical depth. The book serves as a
concentrated set of symptoms that arise and divert discussion when art
and activism are the focus: mainly variations on mythologizing
activism still mired the Sixties (especially 1968) and insistence on
optimism and positive activity.

Konrad Becker, Director and co-founder of the World-Information
Institute, sent an email  to the <nettime> mailing list, announcing
the Critical Strategies in Art and Media event. His introduction
included the following:

"Since I am sick and tired of the blandness and dumbed down
gullibility of what one gets to hear on issues of cultural practice
(even on esteemed and generally very well informed lists) I am looking
forward to a vital and much needed debate...What strategies elude the
Creative Industries? seemingly infinite appetite for things radical?
Are there any strategies that can elude being reduced to styles in the
service of sales, or are critical practices doomed to play cat and
mouse with the forces of consumerism?" 2

The panel consisted of an A-list selection of those working in a zone
orbited by artists and activists: Ted Byfield, co-moderator of the
Nettime mailing list; Jim Fleming, Editor and Publisher at
Autonomedia, a publisher of radical books; Steve Kurtz, co-founder and
member of Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), a collective of tactical media
practitioners; Claire Pentecost, author, artist-activist and
Continental Drift through the Midwest Radical Culture Corridor
collaborator, Pete Lamborn Wilson, author of Temporary Autonomous
Zone; as well as others who pop into the discussion or make video
recorded statements.

Konrad Becker opens the discussion with a 1956 quote from filmmaker
and Situationist International co-founder Guy Debord, "All aware
people of our time agree that art can no longer be justified as a
superior activity, or even as an activity of compensation to which one
could honorably devote oneself." Becker adds that “not only is art
dead but also activism has not moved for a while and starts to smell
funny.” Why begin  a “vital and much needed debate” with a Debord
quote from an essay that precedes the founding of the Situationist
International? With dérive, a Situationist approach to moving through
urban space following one’s desire, recuperated as an exercise to
raise awareness for college art students and détournement, in which
new works of art are not created but instead hijacked from existing
works and reused as propaganda, less of a radical strategy and more of
a description of YouTube and Internet memes, it seems an oddly dusty
place to begin. While it may not have been Becker’s intention, this
dated quote directly connects the conference to the events of 1968,
specifically to May ’68 in France, where a general strike is often
credited partially or substantially to the Situationist International.
It is unlikely that the panelists, many with long histories of
activist art, would be willing to shrug and agree that art and
activism are dead. Thus Becker’s introduction predictably becomes a
negative against which the panelists define themselves and the world
in positive terms and sets the stage for a discussion that rarely
moves beyond the Sixties conceptions of activism3.

As an example of the amorphous, mythological conception of history
that permeates the conference, Steve Kurtz uses his temporal distance
from the Debord of 1956 to define not only Debord but to explain
Debord’s “program”. In short, his explanation is that Debord wrote
when art was limited, unlike today, when Critical Art Ensemble is
ambivalent about using the label “art” for their work. This semantic
switch is imagined as a potential escape from Situationist
International condemnation. From Kurtz’s perspective, Debord might now
even approve of some art activity. It is easy to recuperate the 1956
stance against art by citing historical conditions, but Debord did not
stop writing then. Two years after Kurtz’s first activity under the
name “Critical Art Ensemble,” a year after the core CAE group formed,
and after many actions by artists (and others) pushing the boundaries
of art and activism, Debord wrote, in Comments on the Society of the
Spectacle (1988):

"Since art is dead, it has become extremely easy to disguise police as
artists. When the latest imitations of an inverted neo-Dadaism are
authorized to pontificate gloriously in the media, and thus also to
slightly modify the decor of official palaces, like court jesters to
the kings of junk, one sees that by the same movement a cultural cover
is guaranteed for all the agents or auxiliaries of the State's
networks of influence." 4

Kurtz’s musing that “I am not sure Debord would object so much,” when
discussing the cultural activity of Critical Art Ensemble and other
contemporary activist artists, is undone by the later quote. It seems
quite possible that Debord would object strongly to the multiple
instances in which Kurtz defends projects that CAE (and others) make
by taking money from corporations and gentrifying organizations.

In the book’s discussion on critical art and media, broad enough to
cover the relationship of 1968 to “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” and
the CIA’s LSD-based mind control, the panel neglected to discuss
contemporary activism. While there is mention of  text mobs, art and
science crossovers and video game “intervention,” there is no
discussion of the radically updated civil disobedience strategies of
ACT UP, or their media acumen in bringing attention to and action on
the AIDS crisis. There is no discussion of the French journal Tiqquin,
or the related book The Coming Insurrection by The Invisible
Committee. There is no mention of Tiananmen Square or Girogio
Agamben’s radical last chapter of The Coming Community. Agamben
suggests that the Tiananmen demonstrations existed as a community
without condition of belonging, a new concept of being, closely
related to and likely the inspiration for The Invisible Committee’s
promotion of insurrection against “the very idea of man.” As recently
borne out in Egypt and Libya, Agamben says that wherever these
communities “peacefully demonstrate their being in common there will
be a Tiananmen, and, sooner or later, the tanks will appear.”5 This is
in stark contrast to a CAE lecture described by Steve Kurtz called
“And then the police came...” The lecture covers the times that CAE
was arrested or disciplined for working in public space. The
difference between the arrival of the police to disrupt minor
interventions and the arrival of tanks to put down (or join) an
insurrection perhaps best underscores the lack of vitality in the
Critical Strategies in Art and Media discussion. It is not a matter of
one or the other so much as it is that one is thoroughly discussed and
the other is absent.

“What is to be done?” This question is repeatedly asked in Critical
Strategies in Art and Media. Clair Pentecost says that “feeling
hopeless just makes me mad” and Steve Kurtz says of Konrad Becker “I
have always admired his absolutely unrelenting pessimism...at the same
time the guy never quits” The kernel of this need for activity and the
forced march to optimism is found in a statement by Jim Fleming:
“Somehow there has to be a bridge that allows some exodus out of that
old stuff into whatever the new stuff is going to turn out to be —
which feels in some fundamental way fairly unpredictable...and that is
probably a plus.” While discussing the possibility of escape from the
current political and social situation, his quote would be equally at
home in one of Seth Godin’s bestselling books on marketing. Capitalist
society constantly seeks new stuff: territory, people, images, and
ideas to “monetize”. When civilization is not in a crisis but has
become the crisis, the idea of forming a bridge to the future, once
again providing a new life-support system for a near-dead
civilization, is the root of the problem. As discussion continually
returns to what can be done, there is never any question whether
anything should be done6.

The authors of The Coming Insurrection proposed a contemporary
question, a “vital and much needed” question without presumption of
optimism or activity: “How do we find each other?”7 Their suggestion
is that people must find each other through the morass of a decayed
civilization in order to actively commit to its collapse, already in
progress. The book does not begin with a call to action but by
declaring, without hesitation, “Everyone agrees that things can only
get worse.” This declaration is alive, without optimism —at least for
society or political activity within society. This is current critical
situation in art

With the coming collapse in mind, Claire Pentecost and Brian Holmes’
project (with friends) Continental Drift through the Midwest Radical
Culture Corridor, and the book documenting it, A Call to Farms, rides
the line between support for and withdrawal from the current
civilization. The group toured the American Midwest, seeking out
examples of radical culture and independently-run farms. It is not the
road trip nature of the enterprise, which is perilously close to a
Sixties fantasy, but instead the focus on farms and alternate
economies that will remain as civilization’s collapse hastens, that
makes this a vital project. Without direct reference to The Coming
Insurrection, their trip through the midwest is a response to a call
to find each other. Sarah Kanouse describes it, in her introduction to
A Call to Farms, as “more a process than an organization, more a verb
than a noun.” This project, of all those described in Critical
Strategies in Art and Media, seems most direct and the closest to a
critical strategy combining art and media.

As a gesture and as an event, Critical Strategies in Art and Media had
a serious goal and began as a challenge to “the blandness and dumbed
down gullibility of what one gets to hear on issues of cultural
practice”. While there is no doubt that the participants were
committed to their projects and positive change, a “vital and much
needed debate” did not occur, derailed as it was by the Sixties8 and a
endless return of calls to action and positive thinking. It is worth
investigating the work of all of the participants, especially Claire
Pentecost, Ted Byfield and McKenzie Wark9. The aforementioned books:
Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, The Coming Insurrection,
Coming Community, and Continental Drift through the Midwest Radical
Culture Corridor are required reading for those interested in the
intersection of art and activism. With those books read, it may also
be worthwhile to read Critical Strategies in Art and Media, if only to
consider the multiple opportunities missed and plan a return to the
topic in a future discussion, perhaps in the tone originally put forth
by Becker.


1. A notable exception is Stephen Wright’s “Spy Art: Infiltrating the
Real” in Afterimage, Sept-Dec, 2006, Volume 34, Issue 1-2, pages 52 -
4. Wright discusses art that may not seek an audience and notes “Each
year, thousands of artists simply quit the artworld, choosing to
pursue art in a different mode, in the mode of competence rather than
in the mode of performance, to adopt a Chomskian distinction.”

2. Becker, Konrad, “Critical Strategies” 25 August 2009. Nettime listserv.

3. At one point in the discussion, Judith Malina, a founder of The
Living Theater, says that “I think ’68 isn’t over, it is going on all
the time.” To not only be stuck in the shadow of 1968 but for it to
never have ended is a nightmare prospect worthy of Philip K. Dick.

4. Debordy, Guy. Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. Trans.
Malcolm Imrie. New York: Verso, 1988.

5. Agamben, Giorgio. The Coming Community. Trans. Michael Hardt.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

6. Pete Lamborn Wilson correctly identifies the question “What is to
be done?” as “The good old Leninist question” and then, quite
seriously, responds that he is a hippie and suggests that people “drop

7. The Invisible Committee. The Coming Insurrection. Trans. unknown.
Los Angeles: semiotext(e), 2009.

8.  Ted Byfield makes several valiant attempts to question the focus
on a mythologized past and points out that “Entire master narratives
are both being deployed against younger people on a narrative level,
and denied to them on an analytical level.” Unfortunately he is
undermined and misunderstood, perhaps intentionally. His most
outstanding criticism, “I’m uncomfortable with 1968 serving as a
cudgel to beat people over the head in order to declare their
historical circumstances inadequate.” goes unanswered.

9. Wark has written extensively on digital and internet culture and
might have added much more to the discussion but was absent during the
brief moment anything related to contemporary, digital work was

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