An exhibition across two cities
Saturday 19 January – Sunday 21 April 2013
Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA), Glasgow
Saturday 26 January – Saturday 23 March 2013
In the 21st century, does the economy provide the ground zero of our sense of self? And what does this experience of a life dominated by economic relations feel or even look like? Presented at Stills in Edinburgh and CCA in Glasgow, two parallel exhibitions make the core of ECONOMY. Accompanied by film screenings, public forums and online debate, the project examines the heightened interest of art today in revealing the economy as an inescapable social truth. The artworks on show experiment with the imaginative documentation of everyday life to address issues ranging from climate change, labour conditions, sexuality, migration and the crisis of democracy to the quest for alternative futures.
David Aronowitsch & Hanna Heilborn | Ursula Biemann | Pauline Boudry & Renate Lorenz | Tracey Emin | Andrea Fraser | Claire Fontaine |Melanie Gilligan | Johan Grimonprez | Andreas Gursky | Kai Kaljo | Owen Logan | Rick Lowe | Angela Melitopoulos | Jenny Marketou | Dani Marti | Marge Monko | Tanja Ostojić | Anu Pennanen | Stéphane Querrec | Raqs Media Collective | Martha Rosler | Hito Steyerl | Mitra Tabrizian | WochenKlausur | Paolo Woods
Artists (Film Lounge)
Dario Azzellini & Oliver Ressler | Jeremy Deller & Mike Figgis | Marcelo Expósito & Nuria Vila | Christos Georgiou | Michael Glawogger | Yevginy Fiks Olga Kopenkina & Sasha Lerman | Francesco Jodice | Jesper Nordahl | Ernest Larsen & Sherry Millner | Maria Ruido | Yorgos Zois
How the story goes (in art as well)
ECONOMY draws together a small selection of the many artists across the globe whose work communicates the feeling that society is undergoing a momentous transformation. Whether dealing with access to housing, everyday working conditions, sexuality or the environment, such work is shot through with the sense that something is changing. The question is: what? The two exhibitions at the centre of the ECONOMY project offer a singular answer to this question: what is changing is our relationship to the economy as a necessary response to the economy’s own transformation. In the unforgettable vision of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, all that is solid melts into air – yet again. The end of the Cold War, symbolically represented by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, generated a number of ‘turns’ in the context of contemporary art: turns to collectivism, to the making of archives, to social bonds, relations and communities, to labour, to biopolitics and the document, to struggle. This restless quest for the right ‘tag’ has been one way of saying that contemporary art is, finally, becoming new as it focuses its efforts on the exploration of the material conditions that make reality what it is.
Post-1989 art has developed new strategies to reveal capitalism’s new frontier: ourselves. In other words, the artworks presented can each be seen to reflect upon how our lives and sense of self are shaped by and through capital’s internalised rule, from our childhood experiences to the way we labour, play and make love or war. But this hardly means that all art everywhere became preoccupied with the same issues at once. Undoubtedly, such themes have become more prevalent since the financial crisis of 2008 but this tendency can be indentified across a wide range of practices and geographic regions. This is particularly apparent in works produced in Eastern Europe, as suggested by the limited yet indicative selection showcased in ECONOMY. In this region, the shock transition to capitalism translated into an art that left no stone unturned when it came to examining the experience of economic oppression dealt out in place of the promised ‘freedom’. It is also no accident that the majority of the artists in the exhibitions are women – nor is this the result of ‘positive action’ on our part as curators. If in contemporary capitalism social experience often becomes an economic experience with a gendered face, it almost always falls to female artists to examine this perspective.
Twenty years ago, the combination of Eastern Europe’s transition to post-socialism and China’s explosion into the markets consolidated capitalism’s rule, this time at a truly global level, following centuries of programmatic colonisations of minds, bodies and lands. The ensuing catastrophes have been met by the now equally global imperative of anti-capitalist opposition and popular insurrection. We are in a situation where both the impact of capital’s rule and the desire for exiting its deadlock define our lives. We can no longer however pretend that there is any prospect of transcending – simply as a matter of (revolutionary) course – the economic ‘asymmetries’ that we inhabit and which inhabit us. Where then do we begin?
We begin by marking the change
We propose to begin with observing, understanding, acknowledging this simple fact: obsessive mention of the economy is no longer a cause for embarrassment and opprobrium. Talking about the economy is no longer boring – in the media, the pub, the academy, in institutions and in occupied or unoccupied streets and squares, fervent discussions and often actions are taking place. We began by looking close to home, where things started happening: on 14 November 2012, as we were finalising the exhibition design, Europe had its first ever transnational general strike. And here are some more observations: the Western middle classes are shrinking as the welfare state is dismantled as ‘unaffordable’. Capitalism no longer needs democracy. Entire continents exchange roles as colonisers of other continents in the battle for resources. Slave labour has made a comeback, and fascism too, while religion takes over from secularism by promising a spiritual antidote to everyday misery and material deprivation. Sociologists observe a mountainous amount of public distrust towards the ruling (read economic) elites: it is what the Arab Spring in the Middle East shared with the Occupy movement in New York City.
Beginning to understand these complex shifts is a crucial first step. Art can provide ways of knowing that make imagination a powerful ally. For the French philosopher Louis Althusser, the economy is the hidden substratum that overdetermines the more visible spheres of human action. But, in an epochal development, what he once famously called ‘the last instance that never comes’ is now here and in plain view. Yet it also exceeds the spaces of visuality, becoming ‘aesthetic’ in a broader and more radical sense. Economy now engages all of our senses (or ‘aistheses’) as much as it does our cognitive faculties. Economy has become an experiential matrix: embedded and embodied, material, immaterial, spectral, interdisciplinary, autocratic, and unaccounted for. In the face of such changes, art has had to adapt itself – traditional modes of representation are often no longer sufficient.
Art’s history after postmodernism: From cultural relations to economic ones
ECONOMY is also an intervention into art history. Commonly understood as emerging in the rebellious 1960s, contemporary art is now fifty years old. We suggest that its history requires reviewing in light of how the world has changed since 1989. With this need in mind, ECONOMY proposes a new framework for understanding what has happened in art over the past two decades.
We know that contemporary art began with what was called ‘postmodernism’. Postmodernism’s hegemony lasted for at least 20 years, defining the 1970s and 1980s. These were times when the concept of ‘culture’ dominated critical appraisals of art: everything appeared to happen in the regime of culture where codes and signs circulated, where narratives fractured and where reality dissolved into its own media representation. As another French philosopher, Jean-Francois Lyotard, put it in the late 1970s, postmodernism was tantamount to a feeling that ‘anything goes’. Or, as argued by American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, to the sense that history itself had come to an end – in fact, to the best possible end: a happy marriage between capitalism and democracy.
But around 1990, the completion of capitalist globalisation had a sobering effect: slowly but steadily art started conceiving of reality in terms of complex material conditions. Observing the ethereal movement of signs was no longer enough. By 2000, the possibility of overarching narratives had once again gained ground and intellectuals, such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, even went so far as to describe global capitalism in terms of an ‘empire’. It is a new kind of empire about which we know little. Crisis upon crisis, local war upon local war, protest upon protest: rather than stay still, history has accelerated. Art had to find ways to convey and intervene in this experience and so it set out to devise ways of knowing what surrounds us. As the works included in the exhibitions and the ECONOMY Film Lounge illustrate, documentary modes have become central. Artists deploy them not only in order to map and analyse social realities but as part and parcel of projects which broker new types of engagements between art and life. Yet the emergence of this new realism in the wake of globalisation has not been naïve. Rather, postmodernism’s lessons about the opaque relationship between reality and its representation have been absorbed and re-energised.
As art endeavours to produce politically and ethically meaningful social documents, there is an emphatic pull towards considering the centrality of economic relations. We see in this pull the defining tendency in art since the 1990s. In this sense, ECONOMY is a proposition about what came after postmodernism in contemporary art. In ECONOMY we locate the true motor behind art’s departure from postmodernism in the substitution of a cultural subject with an economic one. In other words, if our lives and who we are – our identity – were once understood as determined by cultural forces and differences, today they are understood as produced through economic forces and inequalities.
A long story, short: Seven keywords
ECONOMY puts forward the view that since the 1990s what we have been witnessing is the proliferation of economic ‘others’ rather than cultural ones. Evidently interwoven rather than neatly complementary, these forms of economic otherness give rise to different modalities of experience that need to be addressed. To this end, we opted to identify seven keywords which cross between experience and the theoretical reflection it has invited in recent years: work, sex, life, enclosures, crisis, spectres, exodus. These seven keywords hardly exhaust the meaning of economy today. Rather, they were often called forth to guide us in the selection of artworks but also, and especially, in thinking about how artistic imagination has responded to its historical context as outlined in this essay. Waves of economic migration, the corruption of democracy walking hand in hand with environmental destruction, the alleged obsolescence of manufacture, a labour regime based on precarity and flexibilisation (that is, exhaustion through work), the enmeshment of production, intimacy and sexuality, the re-emergence of slavery, pirates, martyrs and – not so curiously – armies of reserve labour known as ‘the unemployed’, a global geopolitics of debt, conflict and enclosures – that is, privatisations – that now target the right to education and health care as much as access to water and old age. This is the economy in its passage from the 20th to the 21st century, occasionally summarised as ‘scarcity in the midst of plenty.’ With all its potential for critical vision and imagining, it would have been unthinkable for art to remain unmoved.
Angela Dimitrakaki and Kirsten Lloyd
23 Cockburn Street
Edinburgh EH1 1BP
Saturday 19 January – Sunday 21 April 2013 / Monday – Sunday / 11am – 6pm / FREE
350 Sauchiehall Street
Glasgow G2 3JD
Saturday 26 January – Sunday 23 March 2013 / Tuesday – Saturday / 11am – 6pm / FREE
Previews & Reviews
The Skinny ‘Choose life. Choose economy‘ 03/01/13
The Skinny ‘How to Change the World’ 03/01/13
AN ‘How the economy made losers of us all’ 21/01/13