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Innocence & Privilege
This text will address a number of notions that for me are actualised in and by the work of Verk Produksjoner. If this was a PhD thesis, which it is not, I would divide the notions into the following categories: 1) The Naivist Beauty of Innocence vs The Ignorance of Privilege 2) Sampling – The Delicate Difference Between Quote and Reference 3) Basic Income & Art at Arm’s Length from Politics. Since both the methodology and artistic outcome of Verk Produksjoner are closely linked to their concrete conditions of production, these topics may suggest tendencies specific not only for them, but for the Norwegian field of performing arts in general.
I will mainly refer to two of Verk’s productions – Stalker (2013) and Manifest United (2018). Since I am positive towards the former and slightly in doubt regarding the latter, I should already now mention that I was involved in the preparations and rehearsals for Stalker and am thus obviously biased. Nevertheless, for me these two different performances point at an oscillation, or maybe ambiguity, in the balance between interconnected polarities that I find characteristic in Verk's work. The two examples also represent two different perspectives on the art object. On the one side, an empty signifier aiming for some sort of spiritual passage or transcendence, and on the other, the piece of art as an object of desire. If the former derives its protocols from a theological context, the latter is embedded in a capitalist logic of speculative exchange value. I will come back to this later.
STALKER – THE NON-KNOWING OF MAN
One of the most intriguing and unique qualities of Verk Produksjoner is their naivistic openness to the world. For me, what renders their oeuvre importance and substance is their persistence in meeting the material, audience and the object of art with unconditioned and wide-eyed amazement; courageously resisting the supine, but oh so contemporary, recourse of either irony or cynicism1 in the encounter with everything in the world that cannot be wrapped up in the reductive simplification of what we normally call interpretation. This naivety would of course be problematic if it were not paired with thorough research and meticulous investigation in the working process. When Verk are at their best, the non-knowing as the foundational principle makes them take sides with the audience, looking in bewildered amazement together with us, the spectators, into the unknown of whatever object of study they have chosen. In less fortunate cases, the position of naive innocence risks representing a decontextualised ignorance only possible from an artistic position of privilege, where the artistic subject and the audience join forces in a desire for the art object as fetish.
In Stalker, the non-knowing of man is the very key to the issue. This applies to the content of the original film, the aesthetic holy grail for which the performance is on a quest, as well as for the protocol that the performance itself builds for this mission. The text the performers use is based on interviews with friends asked to recollect their first encounter with the film; both the first impression and the context surrounding it. The simplicity and realist concreteness of this formula congenially mirrors the ceremonial toolbox of the film, in which the three pilgrims (the Writer, the Scientist and the Stalker) submit to a set of rules based on childish games – follow the path of a randomly thrown metal nut, never walk back where you came from, etc. – and where magic power is projected on everyday life environments and objects, rendered potentially transcendent by displacement and abandonment. This active forgetfulness of both the performance and the film – where the identity and function of even the most familiar things are destabilised – produces an emancipatory relation between the performers and spectators. Nobody owns the knowledge or has access to an original essence or substance; whatever truth or interpretation is continuously lost and dissolves.
This dissolution of the stability of meaning, of the paradigmatic structure of fiction we normally refer to as reality, is for me the most valuable aspect of Verk’s toolbox. A specific part of this toolbox are strategies for becoming friends with the fear that arises naturally as a result of accepting to exist in the absence of certitude and knowledge. This fear is developed to a performative mode that is so specific for Verk that it is almost their brand. Jon Refsdal Moe touches on a related notion in his essay An Imminent Danger of Collapse2 where he writes about horror vacui as a theatre-specific anxiety produced by the empty space. This is a fear not only of physical emptiness but also the absence of manifest meaning. This connects to another question specific for theatre - Who Am I?; this most weird of all questions, born out of the fact that the foundational logic directing the choices of an actor are basically always based on the identification with a fiction and its interpretation. In the work of Verk, the answer to all these central questions of the actor – Who am I? Where am I? What am I doing? – Is: I HAVE NO F-ING CLUE!!!
The actors exist on stage in a state of limbo; in perfect balance between being conditionally drawn to the audience like moths to the light and the panic of not knowing the purpose or true meaning of their being on stage (Who am I? What do I want?). This combination of fear and excitement produces a very characteristic, performative presence, an anxious mix trembling with ambiguity that is unmistakably Verk specific. The humour and its warm acknowledgement of the limits of human knowledge, in close kinship with Beckett and the figure of the clown, is deeply existential and allows for the performances of Verk to address complex and abstract matters without distancing themselves from their audience. Very similar to the Zone in the film, the art object here is “a thing that gathers” in its absence. We gather around its centre, but it never appears, never presents itself as manifest imagery. In the moment when the aesthetic machinery takes over, it is an event external to the performers, not so much a part of the performance as a disruption of it, an autonomous chorus of signs evoked by the calling of its forgotten name. Even as it happens, it doesn’t reveal itself or its meaning. It is there, then it is gone, and nobody is any the wiser.
MANIFEST UNITED – The Manifestos are Dead! Long Live the Manifestos!
If this scarcity of manifest signifiers is the key to the performance Stalker, then the name Manifest United suggests a difference in logic and approach. By looking back to the canon of Western art from the 20th century, Verk is raising the question: “What happened to the artist’s manifestos? What caused artists to stop making them?”, noting that the tradition of manifestos “deals with nothing less than a revolution”.
Except for the Danish film manifesto Dogme 95 (1995) and Lebbeus Wood’s Manifesto (1993), the manifestos investigated in the performance stem from a period from 1909 to 1970. With this selection there is a focus not so much on the manifestos as such, but more on the (predominantly male) artist as a heroic figure in the avant-garde myth of the revolutionary potential of art. This perspective is not merely aesthetic, but also outlines the discursive frame of the performance. I would claim that the important difference between the early 70s and a contemporary context is not that artists have stopped producing manifestos – they haven’t. What has changed is the logics of the dialectics in the relation art/economy, i.e. the perspectives of the interdependency between the artist and the hand that feeds them.
There are many examples of more contemporary manifestos which, even though some have been written from a position between art and theory, have had immense relevance and impact in current art practices. Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto (1985) and VNS Matrix’s A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century (1991), albeit predating both Dogme 95 and Lebbeus Woods’ Manifesto, today resonate at the very centre of contemporary artistic practice and critical theory, as do the more recent In Defence of a Poor Image by Hito Steyerl (2009) and Sara Ahmed's Killjoy Manifesto (2017), to mention only a few. In the stricter context of performing arts there is, of course, the Ghent Manifesto by Milo Rau from 2017 (although I think this is too much a gesture of representational symbolics to be really interesting).
I do not mean to criticise the selection of manifestos as such (although its canonisation of patriarchal, Western art as the genealogy of modernism could be understood as both romanticising and problematic). But there is something with how the performance is defined from an almost revisionist perspective on art history – The Manifestos Are Dead! Long Live the Manifestos! – that puzzles me. Why chose to renounce the existence of contemporary and relevant manifestos in order to focus on a category of manifestos that, still aesthetically intriguing as they might be, for very concrete reasons have lost their foundation in a current political and economic context?
This act of active forgetting relates to a different logic of non-knowledge than that of Stalker. The naivist position of non-knowing in relation to the aporetic transcendence of Tarkovsky’s film produces a void, where the performance functions as an empty signifier and open-ended passage. The forgetfulness also plays out on a socio-economic level. The memories of the interviewed subjects are deeply embedded in a historical context; Stalker is from 1979 and had its Swedish premiere in 1981, a time frame marking the passage from a Fordist to neoliberal economy heralded by the elections of Margret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Just as the detailed fragments simultaneously capture and lose the imagery of the film, the performance points at the loss of collective memory: Who are we? Where do we come from?
In Manifest United, the same position of naive ignorance has, as far I can see, a different result. Where the thematic field of Stalker is spiritual/theological, Manifest United in its celebration of the lost manifestos of modernist art enters the territory of economy. From the perspective of the 20th century there is an intimate connection between the artistic object and capitalism; the economy of art is driven by collectors and investors, and the art object can also be said to exist in a double bind with the speculative exchange value intrinsic to capitalistic economy. In this context, what for me above all is apparent in Manifest United is a decontextualised desire for art-as-such, siding with, rather than revolting against, a semiocapitalism whose main nutrition is precisely a generic creativity producing attention without context or discourse.
The practical protocol of the performance is seemingly as simple as that in Stalker. The space is divided into three modules, mimicking the studio sets from a TV show. In two of the sets the walls have no surface, it is a transparent structure, in the third set the walls are covered with white paper. When the performance starts, the performers spend quite some time trying to bring an oversized canvas through the doors into the inside of the structure. This, and other similarly symbolic acts of bringing art into being, where the heroic ambition more often than not is associated with failure, is juxtapositioned by reading out loud a selection of manifests.
What is the key issue or drive at stake in this performance? Is it a celebration of a modernist heroism or is it ironic? Is it an imagery of utopia or dystopia? Does the composition of the performance reflect an actual artistic proposal, or is it rather mimicking an idea of “art”? Is the core a nostalgic longing for a lost revolutionary potential in art, or is it a self-critical meditation on the political impotence of art? There is, of course, no universal law saying that art has an intrinsic responsibility to revolt or take a critical stance against economic systems. But, then again, if the very matter of the performance is artistic manifestos and revolution, the lack of contextual precision becomes problematic. When entering a retrospective journey through artistic manifestos of the past, the expedition into the relation between artistic expression and political utopia will inevitably confront the traveller with not only the aesthetics but also the economy of the time investigated as well as of her/his own. I think perhaps my doubt in relation to Manifest United is caused not so much by the initially obvious artistic nostalgia but is more political. Could it be that the productive aspect of the naive innocence from Stalker, when applied to the politics of art perhaps transforms into a certain socioeconomic escapism? That the perspective of non-knowledge here is a problematic strategy because it turns it back to the paradoxical and conflictive questions on the economical foundations of one’s own practice? Is the position of innocence in combination with a position of privilege tendentially problematic because the privilege transforms innocence into ignorance? Then again, all the reflections of this text have their source in the performance. In other words, it does address a number of central and urgent issues in the landscape of contemporary performing arts. So, why do I find it problematic?
HEROES AND CLOWNS
“Contemporary art is a brand name without a brand, ready to be slapped onto almost anything, a quick facelift touting the new creative imperative for places in need of an extreme makeover, the suspense of gambling combined with the stern pleasures of upper-class boarding school education.”3
Hito Steyerl, Politics of Art
The emblematic idea of “the artist” as a free agent, acting as an antipole to the established regimes and social structures, was never stronger than in the modernist era. From van Gogh’s ear via the futurist fascistoid celebration of acceleration and force to the alcohol-fuelled eruptions of Jackson Pollock, the idea of the artist as a (male) hero in a constant battle for freedom from established hegemonies and institutions runs as a genre-crossing red thread. From a contemporary perspective, the modernist heroes of art in some ways really were the avant-garde, maybe not so much as a force liberating art, but more as the elite troops of contemporary semiocapitalism; forerunners at the front of a historic force that would overthrow the last constraints that a bourgeois legacy put on a contemporary capitalism. Many of the most feverish visions found in the manifestos of the 60s, have today been realised within the context of the Ronald Reagan 1988 speech at Moscow State University which defined the new economy as:
“We're emerging from the economy of the Industrial Revolution – an economy confined to and limited by the Earth's physical resources – into ‘The Economy in Mind’, in which there are no bounds on human imagination and the freedom to create is the most precious natural resource. In the new economy, human invention increasingly makes physical resources obsolete. We're breaking through the material conditions of existence to a world where man creates his own destiny.”4
Reagan admits that this new horizon can, of course, appear scary – letting go of the gravity of a material economic logic in favour of the weightlessness of unlimited speculation necessarily conditions a leap of faith. (Accordingly, the heroes in Reagan’s speech are the adventurous bank robbers (sic!) in the 1969 Hollywood movie Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid5).
In this historic process of transformation, branded the Information Revolution by Reagan in which a Fordist object-based capitalism is exchanged with a post-Fordist semiocapitalsm, the linguistic figures of de-materialisation reproduce the desires and strategies for the conceptualization of art within the conceptualization of economy and vice versa. The de-materialisation of the art object, famously described by Lucy Lippard in 1968, is in 1971 echoed by Nixon’s liberation of the dollar from the gold standard. Compare Reagan’s vision of an economy no longer constrained by the limits of natural laws with the idea of unlimited freedom for a fearless art in the following adaption of Lebbeus Woods’ Manifesto (1993).
“We said ‘Architecture is War. War is architecture’. We were at war with all authorities that reside in fixed and frightened forms. We were at war with all icons and finalities, with all histories that would chain us with our own pitiful fears. We knew only moments, and lifetimes that were as moments, and forms that appear with infinite strength, then ‘melt into air’.”
Or with the quest for an art unchained from both social and physical contexts from Stanley Brouwn’s A Short Manifesto (1964).
“When the people will have lost their remembrance and thus will have no past, only future when they will have to discover everything every moment again and again when they will have lost their need for contact with others... when they will live in a world of only colour, light, space, time, sounds and movements, then colour light space time sounds and movement will be free.”
I can’t figure out if Manifest United is meant as a self-critical, scathing indictment with the defeat of substantial context from self-expression in today’s economy of attention. Or if the performance itself is a typical example of creative economy harvesting the substance in an imagery from a past. Like the Che Guevara t-shirts or the relics of DDR paraphernalia; capitalising the image's intrinsic promise of politics and utopic potential, emptying it of all value and leaving behind the hollow carcasses of iconic symbols, drained of their primal content and context? Or maybe this ambiguity is the actual point made in the performance? Maybe I am misinterpreting the nostalgia of Manifest United? Maybe its desire for a long-gone heroic art actually is a very conscious choice; a self-reflection of the schism between drive and impotence, where the devoted copying/sampling of absent heroes serves as a congenial scrapbook mirroring the decontextualised genericness and lack of discourse as a symptom of contemporaneity.
Be that as it may, regardless of the intentions of the performance I do think that it points at an interesting tendency in how the contemporary Nordic field of performing arts relates to context and referentiality. This tendency (if it exists) could be described as the result of a number of current conditions: abundant access to archival material, the influence on culture of sampling techniques, and a schizophrenic relation between the idea of art as intrinsically critical and the well-known fact that art operates at the core of contemporary capitalism.6 If the modernist manifesto models the artist as an avant-garde hero in the struggle for an autonomous and revolutionary art, the contemporary artist is confronted with a slightly more complex understanding of the politics of art. As Hito Steyerl puts it “Contemporary art is no unworldly discipline nestled away in some remote ivory tower. On the contrary, it is squarely placed in the neoliberal thick of things (...) Art is not outside politics, but politics resides within its production, its distribution, and its reception.”7 Steyerl’s text was written a decade ago. Today, I would claim that this perspective on art production is an unsurpassable fact, a benchmark of sorts, which all artistic activity – consciously or unconsciously – is measured against. What does this situation of immanence mean for the critical potential of art? As said, the double bind effect of cynicism and irony could be understood as a response to this dualistic impasse. Caught in the wormhole of this logic, the iconic figure of the contemporary artist is perhaps no longer the hero, but rather the clown.
The clown indeed is one of the dominating tropes in Manifest United; as protocol (in the stumbling failures of mastering objects and space), as performative mode (in the continuous and anxious affirmation of the relation to the spectators) and, not least, in the performers’ physicality caused by oversized gloves and shoes. The clown as a self-producing victim, caught in a loop generated by a perfect blend of desire and impotence, is a very effective point of departure for an investigation of the political potential of contemporary art. However, in order for this venture to reach beyond a reproduction of the very loop it describes, it needs to somehow be self-reflective. To my understanding, this is only possible if the work defines its position in relation to the referential system it is operating within, rather than merely assembling aesthetics and thematics as decontextualised quotes. The manifestos in this aspect in themselves cannot be understood as the context of the art; disengaged from the financial and social structures they originally addressed their semiotics to become mere representational aesthetics.
I WANT ALL ALL ALL THE MONEY!!!
“Outside among men, where the skies are bright, there’s a saying ‘Man, to thyself be true’. But here among the trolls the saying runs ‘Troll, to thyself be – enough’!”
Henrik Ibsen, Peer Gynt
As much as the selection of manifestos in Manifest United is dominated by the era of modernism (a paradigm where “theatrical” was the ultimate invective of bad art, an interesting fact that calls for an essay of its own), the main model for the performance comes from a later period. Since the early 70s, the North American painter Paul McCarthy has mainly been producing his work in Los Angeles, where the economy, network and referential frame of art is defined by its proximity to Hollywood. This context, where a fictionalization of the Self plays out in the setting of predatory capitalism, is a referential system deeply embedded in most of McCarthy’s pieces.
As far as I can recall, Manifest United operates with three recurring figures – the Clown, the Troll and Pinocchio – all of which are central to McCarthy pieces like The Painter (1995), Pinocchio Pipenose Household Dilemma (1994), Caribbean Pirates (2001–2005) and WS (2013). As the video performance The Painter is the work closest to Verk’s imagery, it might be interesting to look at some of the main references addressed in the work.
The video performance takes place in a wooden TV set of three rooms: an artist’s studio, a hallway, and a bedroom. The studio is filled with large canvases, oversized brushes and tubes of paint. Wearing a blonde wig, large rubber hands and an oversized bulbous nose, Paul McCarthy continuously attempts to produce art; smearing paint on huge canvases with his body, mixing the paint with ketchup and mayonnaise, spinning around chanting “de Kooning, de Kooning, de Kooning”. Parallel with the scenes from the studio, McCarthy is having a durational row about finances with a gallery owner, over and over yelling “Why don’t you write me the cheque now? Why don’t you pay me? All the money! I want it right now right now right now! I want all all all the money!”.
In The Painter, the heroic gestures of modernist icons such as de Kooning and Pollock are transformed into ultimate clownery; a futile struggle, grandiose in its childishness, where the production of art is examined in its primal connections to desire and economy. Verk Produksjoner is not the only example of Scandinavian theatre deeply influenced by McCarthy’s toolbox of theatricality, his legacy can be found central to the successful work of Markus Öhrn as well as that of Ida Müller and Vegard Vinge. In the case of Müller and Vinge, the references are applied at both an artistic and contextual level. The performative persona of Vegard Vinge vibrates in constant oscillation between hero and clown, caught in a furious battle with the institutions that simultaneously provide the basic foundation for their art. The aesthetic means cannot be separated from the context they address. With Manifest United I somehow fail to see how sampling McCarthy’s symbolic universe is contextualised into the socioeconomic reality of Verk’s own production.
I most definitely don’t mean to criticise sampling as artistic strategy. On the contrary, the use of aesthetic fragments – sliced down in small enough entities to render them autonomous from a supposed original – is a highly productive tool to contextualise my work in relation to an existing referential system. It is also a useful apparatus to produce and/or explore the present as a position between the past and the future. But this operation is possible only on the condition that the sample is treated as a link to a complex web of contextual references, and is not only assembled as a funky collection from my favourite YouTube playlist. I am allowing myself to speculate here, but I understand this use of decontextualised quotes to be a both problematic and very contemporary phenomenon. Keeping in mind Walter Benjamin’s theses of the effect of technology on the art object, we can perhaps understand this tendency as a defining problem of our time. The conditions of this phenomenon are two-fold: a) an unlimited technological access to reproductional techniques as well as archival material, and b) a collective crisis of consciousness regarding the critical potential of art. Could it be that we are increasingly using sampling, not as a means to critically understand our position in a historical process, but to maintain the appearance of political semiotics in spite of being conscious of the impasse of art as political potential? Sampling as a Viagra for an impotent art?
Just as Viagra is a remedy produced in the context of abundant privilege, there might be a connection between the playlist sampling and the problem of producing artistic subjectivity from the position of financial privilege. Just as appropriation mainly is abusive when done from a position of power, sampling as production of discursive context is related to minority vs majority positions8. The same technical device, which in the sampling tradition of Detroit Techno9 produces the potential for new trajectories of subjectivation, in the hands of commercial producers results in a generic music industry, appropriating subjectivity and capitalising the desire triggered by its political potential sample by sample, until all that remains is an infinite hollowed out auto-tune refrain.
From this perspective, I would say that Manifest United more than anything else performs a desire of being an artist, a de-contextualised longing of being-part-of-art, where the politics of the manifestos mainly serve as an ingredient intrinsic to what makes art being art. What is somewhat weird to me is that in this desire, "art" seems to be some sort of constant. "Art" here is something already existing, a universal essence of sorts, rather than something that has to be produced over and over again. A bit like politics, an institution that we also tend to take for granted – almost a right that belongs to me as a citizen, rather than a set of conditions and competences that we have to invest in and produce on a daily basis.
There is this referential moment in the performance that for me resonates with the core of my ambiguity towards the work. The activities of the performers are accompanied for some minutes by Edvard Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King. I catch the obvious link to the trollish appearance of the performers, but similarly with the quotes from Paul McCarthy, I cannot tell the extent to which it links to a referential system or if it is mainly a pun-like association. Does the Mountain King quote take it one step further by including Grieg’s reference to Ibsen? The music was originally composed for the play Peer Gynt, more specifically Act II where Peer meets the Troll King and is taught their secret transformative motto “Troll, to thyself be – enough!” Here, Manifest United touches on a certain self-containment that I find to be common for much Norwegian performing art. As long as things stay as they are, everything is kind of really good, given that you are part of the majority culture. Compared to the rest of Europe, there is a fairly well functioning financial structure. This is, of course, amazing and exactly the way it should be. In combination with a well-developed structure for international guest performances, the funding system has also produced a field of performing arts, especially within theatre, that has provided the conditions for artists and companies to generate much more interesting and updated aesthetics than in Denmark and Sweden, for example. But the vitality has stayed purely aesthetic – what hasn’t been produced is an active discourse and/or the contextual framework of a field.
This is obviously a slippery slope. I most definitely do not believe that good art can only be produced in poor circumstances, or that only poverty can provide politically relevant art. But somehow the function of politics within the Norwegian field of art is to keep the money coming. As for the rest, politics as far as art is concerned is mainly something that – in the words of Hito Steyerl – is always happening somewhere else.10 I don’t think this happens as a result of a natural law, there are, of course, as many political aspects of a privileged economy as anywhere else. I would say, however, that the well-funded structure for artists comes with a certain responsibility. And maybe what sometimes makes itself slightly too apparent, is that the Norwegian field of performing arts has money enough to engage in a celebration of art-as-such; a decontextualised circulation of imagery capitalising on political subjectivity and substance produced in other places and other times.
In Sweden there has been much debate lately of how to stay true to the principle of political funding structures keeping an arm’s length away from art. In Norway, I sometimes get the feeling that the principle has been turned upside down: Art is financially well-funded as long as it promises to keep an arm’s length away from to politics.
1 Seen from my horizon, the position of either cynicism or irony is one of the main characteristics in the current field of performing arts, at least in Scandinavia. Perhaps this has developed as a time specific cynical reason. We all know that the attention economy of contemporary semiocapitalism has no outside; if your field of work is performing arts, you’re actually most likely aware of being in its very core. So, how do we as artists still maintain a position of critique? The Scylla/Charybdis logic of taking either a cynical or an ironic position could be understood as a reaction to this paradox.
2 Verk Produksjoner #2, p 3.
3 Hito Steyerl “Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy” (e-flux #21, December 2010)
4 Ronald Reagan, Remarks to the students and faculty of Moscow State University (https:// www.reaganfoundation.org/media/51321/moscow.pdf).
5 After making a fortune robbing the salary transport meant for the railroad workers, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are caught up by a posse. Trapped at a shelf between the posse and the rapids hundreds of feet below, the robbers chose to jump into the open. As Reagan concludes in the speech: “Sometimes it takes faith”.
6 See footnote 2.
7 Hito Steyerl “Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy” (e-flux #21, December 2010).
8 For more on the relation between majority and minority positions in arts, see Kafka: Towards a Minor.
Literature by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (University of Minnesota Press, 1986).
9 For more on the genealogy of sampling in Detroit Techno, see More Brilliant than the Sun by Kodwo Eshun
(Quartet Books, 1998).
10 Hito Steyerl “Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy” (e-flux #21, December 2010).