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Speed and Gravity
a Performance Lecture
The existence of a public realm depends entirely on permanence. If the world is to contain a public space, it cannot be erected for one generation and planned for the living only; it must transcend the life-span of mortal men. Without this transcendence into a potential earthly immortality, no politics, strictly speaking, no common world and no public realm, is possible. The common world is what we have in common not only with those who live with us, but also with those who were here before and with those who will come after us. But such a common world can survive the coming and going of the generations only to the extent that it appears in public.
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
We all know the dream. In a very generic vision of freedom you´re out running. When you jump over a fence or some other obstacle, instead of landing you suddenly keep levitating, up up and away, until you find yourself free floating in the air. The first sensation can be something similar to fear, a sudden and tingling panic of loss of control, that slowly gives way for a triumphant feeling of souvereignity and invincibility. I don´t have this dream very often anymore.
Contemporary economy is ideologically color-blind, it is simply totally indifferent to resistance. Its main propellant is difference. The difference between the yellow Nike of last month and the blue Asics of next week; the tiny glitches separating one category of identity from the other. Because in the logic of contemporary economics, every new category of identity means a new target group. Capitalism doesn´t care one bit about the objective or ideological agenda behind my projects; as long as they produce difference they fullfill their task as fuel making the wheels turn faster.
When writing applications for arts grants in Sweden, you are asked to define in what way your work – ”the project” – is developing/enabling new artistic forms. Yes, of course. But what do we do with all the old, already existing art? And when working with projects aiming for production of new knowledge, how do we relate to the knowledge from last years workshops and platforms? It is a machine for continuous production of discursive and aesthetic redundance, like gadgets and clothing; following the logic of novelty/fashion, where the task of the new product/knowledge is to outdate the previous.
Yesterdays knowledge, strategy, concept or notion has to be outdated; not because it actually has stopped being useful or interesting, it just became a bit old. It's an obstacle, it is in our way. In the accelerated logic – where we stay afloat as long as we keep moving, where speed and flexibility is the recipe for our super-powers – neither knowledge nor discourse has the objective of actually interacting with society or its institutions. It has become a field of its own, separated from the political reality. The task of the new concept is to keep its predecessor out of reach of reality.
The institutions of the 20th century still carried the legacy of the national state, operating as an aparatus to define narratives of coherent national identities. This task most of us today would say has become significantly outdated – but only on a superficial level. It´s of course difficult for any serious museum, theatre or university to formally claim to represent a true Swedish, German or Croatian identity. But on the other hand, this primarly central objective hasn´t really been replaced by any other aim or task.
We are often using the metaphor of dinosaurs for these big, clumsy and old organisations – but what happens if we follow the line of that comparison? Is a society without institutions still a society? How can we think institutional critique in the context of the institution as an endangered species? In our time – when post-fordist economy is transforming existing platforms to cultural shopping malls, where knowledge, aesthetics and politics is produced and consumed in as generic forms as possible – is it possible to rethink and re-claim the institution as a necessary mediator between society and citizens?
SANDRA BULLOCK I:
At 600 km above planet earth the temperature fluctuates between +258 and -148 degrees fahrenheit. There is nothing to carry sound. No air pressure. No oxygen. Life in space is impossible.
Thus starts the film Gravity from 2013. The somehow unexpected success of the film is interesting. How could it be that a movie with only two characters and a story that could be told in half a sentence had such a big impact? Of course, the camera work and the special effects were both spectacular and subtile, George Clooney´s smile as captivating as ever and nobody beats Sandra Bullock when it comes to combining larger-than-life beauty with the qualities of average next-door everydayness. But there must be some other explanation to why the movie was so mesmerizing.
A first thought could be that it felt like the first movie actually conceived in a 3D logic – the priority of space before story making it moving sculpture rather than moving image. Reading Hannah Arendts ”The Human Condition” opens up a different perspective and potential of the film´s narrative. There is an interesting parabel between the existence in space – the ultimate version of our wish to escape the human condition as ”mere earth-bound creatures” – and a contemporary economy, capitalizing virtual values of mental processes rather than material products.
Life in space is impossible. But it´s neither the extreme temperature nor the lack of oxygen that makes existence in space impossible. Rather, like the title suggests, all threats appear as a result of lack of gravity. Hit by debris from another high tech communication center, Sandra Bullock is thrown out spinning into the black empty.
- Give me your position!
- I don´t know , I don´t know! I... I am spinning! I can´t... I can´t …
- Report your position!
- GPS is down, I can´t, it´s down... I can´t
- Give me a visual!
- I see nothing!
- You need to focus! Anything!
There is no up, no down, once you are set in motion the accelerated movement continues eternally, and just the idea of getting an overview of even your most immediate territory is ridicilous. Without a force that pulls bodies down to some foundation or point zero, the possible consequences of even the smallest event – dropping a bolt, or the minimal thrust that sends you moving into infinity – is beyond comprehension. Not because of the force in the act itself, but because there is no counter-force. Totally liberated from any form of inertia or fixating energy of a common center, any move might send me tumbling away in the isolation of souvereign solitude.
The longing to escape the bound to earth becomes, when fully realized, an existence of infinite terror. In a world defined by its lack of contra-powers, every initiative can evolve into a potentially devastating threat to your very existence.
In February 2014 Facebook in US announced that their users no longer are limited to chose between the two genders ”female” and ”male”. As of the 13th February last year, the social network allows us to express our unique individuality through no less than 56 gender identities. This of course is a victory not only for everyone describing themselves as queer, LGBT or transgender, but also for anyone feeling a general resistance towards being boxed in and inscribed in narrow social categories. But on the other hand, Facebook is a company making their profit mainly by providing targeted advertisement. And as from the 13th February, Facebook can offer no less than 54 new target groups to their advertising customers.
SANDRA BULLOCK II:
- Why is all this happening? What did we do? Bomb the guys country or something?
- It´s just a guy who wants money.
- So, what´s this guys deal?
- A while back he held some people for ransom. It went south, and now he´s a little pissed at me.
- What has that have to do with us?
- Nothing. It´s a game. If he gets the money, he wins. If the bus blows up he wins.
- What if you win?
- Then tomorrow we play another one.
- But I'm not available to drive tomorrow. Busy.
In Speed from 1994 Sandra Bullock is a random passanger that for random reasons finds herself behind the steering wheel of a public bus. She then spends the major part of the films 115 minutes driving the bus, a task with the sole objective of keeping up the speed. She has boarded the bus in Santa Monica, running with coffee cup in hand shouting for the bus driver – whom she knows by first name: ”Andy, wait!” – the usual morning routine. Now Andy is wounded, randomly shot by mistake by a random passenger, and Sandra Bullock is thrown head first into a situation of continuous urgency. The vehicle is moving along Highway 10, direction Downtown, with an attached bomb controlled by the speedometer, forcing her to keep the speed; should she let the meter drop below 50 mph the bus full of passangers immediately will explode.
The bad guy is a former cop, asking for both money and revenge. His only motive is anger and recentment for the lack of gratitude from a society he has served for a lifetime. The timer of the bomb is the cheap, fake goldwatch the LAPD gave him at the day of his retirement. History is coming back, the consequence of past politics is taking its toll; the only way to avoid the inevitable moment where we have to make up with our past is to accelerate, to keep speed, the smallest loss of momentum means confrontation and devastating conflict .
Sandra Bullock´s position is existence without any plans for the future; it is all about inventing new strategies for staying in course without dropping speed, one block and one minute at a time. Temporary solutions to a constant, endless series of temporary emergencies. The passangers´ temporary applauses for temporary victories linger a couple of seconds; a brief moment of catching our breath before a new strategy to maintain speed has to be invented.
We are creating an infinitely increasing number of platforms to produce ”difference”. Temporary residencies and workshops, platforms and autonomous art collectives; they all produce new and differentiated toolboxes and strategies, supporting differentiated subjectivities and agendas. This apparatus is the inevitable logic of our contemporary modes of productions – festivals, projects, temporary collaborations – focusing on an accelerated production and expression of identity and subjectivity, rather than the implementation and negotiation of the produced notions and tools into a public sphere.
When do these different identities negotiate their differences? Where is the space where these new and differentiated subjectivities have to confront their different positions and agendas with each other? And where do we deal with the strategies, toolboxes and agendas that we produced last week?
The old trope of the avantgarde vs. the mainstream is no longer valid; nor is the dichotomy of the elite vs. the common man – in terms of aesthetics this always was a pseudo-opposition anyway. Not even the idea of the autonomous artist vs. the institution makes sense anymore; these are all figures of fake dialectics. The important question is: where do they meet, what interface do they have to share?
The institution is the tool we invented to negotiate how to share a public realm; a structure where we can invest the result of our work to be implemented and digested over timeframes exceeding the lifespan of individuals as well as generations. The institutions is the necessary apparatus to negotiate the relation not only between us who are presently sharing a socio-political sphere, but also – to speak with Derrida – an interface for negotiation with those who are not-us, not-here and not-now.
The Institution is slow, it is everything but contemporary; it´s not flexible, it is by definition heavy to move and conservative in taste as well as modes of productions. This, we can all agree, is of course annoying. But in the current time – where the neoliberal economy produces a 24/7 demand of speed, accessibility, flexibility, mobility and a general readiness of everyone to at any time transform into anything – the very heaviness and unbearably physical character of both the walls and staff that by nature refuses change carries an interesting radicality.