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By Harry Burke

LuckyPDF, 幸運PDF S/S 2013 capsule collection, 2012.

One of my favorite searches on twitter is “twitter sadness”. For such a simple gesture, it exposes a lot about our emotional relationships with technology. Because there is a simple tension at work here: you’re at once able to connect with people, anyone in the world, but at the same time segregated, atomized, sold in 140 characters. But maybe that’s ok. These technologies exist, and we use them; what’s important is how we use them. “So much heartbreak & sadness in feed this morning, but beautiful because it's bringing people together. The power of @twitter”.

One of my favorite bands, I think, is Goth Tech. Goth Tech are the perfect correlation, because everything they release is 140 bmp or less. Slow, sad, saturated house music, like the sound of a text message when you’re in love, stretched to an hour-long DJ set. Of course, crucial to them is this fetishization of Internet sadness as alluded to above, and all around us. Pastel pink and blue, it’s music about indulging in indulging in each other, finding each other in fantasy, always forever together apart. If this seems something of a stretch, as an unlikely formula for pop music, then it is worth being clear that it is exactly the stasis of emotive, communicative capitalism. Our emotions are packaged and given value, whilst market logic maintains us at optimum distance from each other. Sadness in this respect moves from its general meaning to something entirely precise: we can tell people, but we can never talk about it. Better lonely than alone.

Prominent in my newsfeed towards the end of last year was the exhibition “Paraproduction” at Boetzelaer|Nispen Gallery in Amsterdam, curated by Alana Kushnir and featuring work by Hannah Perry, Benedict Drew, LuckyPDF, Christopher Kulendran Thomas and Ed Fornieles. Exploring a phenomenon of networked performances in art, the show took as its subject “a concentration of London-based artists who exploit the curatorial strategies of exhibition, circulation and distribution.” A deftly organized network performance in its own right, and very much a timestamp of a certain moment in London, the exhibition’s success came exactly in its removal from London, its production of an image of a network outside of the regular space of that network. A delicate balance of #fomo and Whatever; any fear of missing out was tempered by an understanding of not needing to be there, of participating in a different way.

The last two years have seen a proliferation of artists taking modes of circulation and distribution as an artistic material, and the exhibition was totally happy to participate in this, in fact was predicated on this trend. ”This publication has been conceived and produced for a wholly transparent purpose. It is a souvenir of cultural capital”, as its accompanying publication, featuring texts by another collection of likely subjects, proclaimed. This is refreshingly honest as the first two sentences to a publication. Yet as final as this statement appears, it still forces us its own questions. What is this cultural capital? Why do we still valorize it so much?

The intention of this text is not so much to deconstruct this, but instead situate it in a context it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Art today is infused with networks, which is to say produces meaning in negotiation with them, and this show presents this in an honest way. Yet it also provokes us to think what that meaning is, and what we can make it be. Networked action is explicitly collective action, but it is not necessarily incisive or organized action.

So what is this networked action, as developed in these artworks? Claire Bishop, in Artificial Hells, has traced the emergence of what she terms ‘delegated performances’ in the 1990s. These are artworks that involve the “hiring of non-professional performers”, a movement away from the events and performances being enacted by the artists themselves. What is perhaps compelling about her study is not the role of this trend as in any sense an avant-garde, but the grounding of this phenomenon in the economic and political conditions of the time. The ‘outsourcing’ of labor, we’re reminded, was very much a buzzword of the accelerationist 90s, a model we can see as then appropriated in the examples cited (Santiago Sierra, Tania Bruguera et al). The works in Paraproduction can clearly be placed in this tradition. However, and in tandem with developments in labor and production of the last twenty years, there is a distinct historical difference. Participants in these projects aren’t paid, and instead participate for free following models established by P2P, crowdsourcing, and social networks.

Art, for a lot of the last century, has been caught in a precarious dialectic between high and low culture, between ideas of autonomy and placement in the physical economies of the world; its avant-gardes have always tried to rescue it, to make it into ‘life’. The works in Paraproduction mark an interesting moment in this history, as they propose an art that’s firmly within the infrastructure of society. Which is to say, they are a type of distributed performance, dispersed through the quantifiable and material networks, which comprise social relations. Whether performing alternate identities on Facebook, as explored in Fornieles’ Dorm Daze, or exercising the brand value of their peers, as is LuckyPDF’s critical project, they operate and perpetuate the immaterial production that is today so familiar, so integral to our economy as a whole.

Despite allowing for an art that seeps fluidly out the doors of the Institution, able, and in a way that Bruguera would have found impossible, to treat the museum as one site among many rather than a primary context, there is on the face of it not that much difference between this mode of art-making and its direct precursors. For art has always taken sociality as its material, even if that sociality was at one point the repressive and Byzantine codes of religion. A church fresco is an homage to a certain form of patriarchal hegemony, as is the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. The work of Hans Haacke illustrates this neatly, and makes explicit through post-war systems theory the real and ultimately oligarchical exchanges of capital that permeate museum culture within modern liberal democracies. Voting in a ballot box as an artistic gesture is beautiful, in this way, as it mobilizes the strategies of representation as maintained by the dominant elite directly against that dominant elite, yet at the same time reveals their vital insufficiencies; the reduction of politics to mere polling. Putting paper in a box as a direct expression of humanity: every perfect individual perfectly categorized.

We should therefore attempt to understand what models we’re perpetuating in the present moment, and what forms of society are implicit in the way we phrase our art projects. Though not overtly as political as Haacke’s work, and not in the same tradition of institutional critique, the differences between the MoMa Poll of 1970 and the curatorial strategies as proposed by Paraproduction mirror wider changes in participatory politics, as well as the organisation of sociality in our culture in general. Indeed the date of Haacke’s canonical work is tantalising, for it is this point that commentators generally agree marks the shift from predominantly industrial to immaterial and uninhibitedly financialised production across the global North. The artist of Paraproduction is an artist fully adapted to this liquid and connectionist world, able to exploit global economies of attention through a laptop and an eye for cheap travel. The art of this artist is indicative of this, indeed a product of it, presenting these economies of attention as sculptural or performative studies.

Hans Haacke, MoMa Poll, 1970.

If art is going to insert itself directly within these structures of communicative capitalism, then it needs to make explicitly clear its relationship to this capitalism. Social networking tools, and indeed the wider technologies of web 2.0, are sold to us within a narrative of emancipation; they are the promise of instant feedback, the ability to keep the world updated as to ‘what’s happening’, in real time. They are the harbingers of horizontal democracy. Jodi Dean operates a salient critique of this fantasy, however, emphasizing the extent to which communication today functions as a primarily economic form, and as such an all-consuming ideology: “Capitalism is our fixed reality”. This is the entire melancholy of Twitter, as one social media example among many: it becomes not what we say that’s important, but that we keep saying it. It’s like the feeding of the 5000, with one piece of bread passed between everyone as no one dares ingest it, all then stopping at the 1st century Palestinian version of Taco Bell on the way home. The result is infinite exchangeability, zero engagement, in which “communicative exchanges, rather than being fundamental to democratic politics, are the basic elements of capitalist production.”

To replicate these models in our art is to perpetuate the capitalism that is resulting in systematic social divides on both local and global scales that have abstracted our social relations for the gross profit of an arbitrary few. Claire Bishop argues for the criticality of her delegated performances as one of sadist transgression, in which the perversity embodied by institutions and presented as a norm is revealed through a parallel perversity, which by contrast is parsed as an anomaly. Certainly we can say this about Santiago Sierra; arguably it is true of much of Haacke’s work, too. Yet when the economic reality is becoming progressively more perverse, this becomes a terrible one-upmanship. We need an art that does more than make visible the already evident.


For all the best intentions of ethical consumerism, and as morally rewarding as it is to buy bath products at the Body Shop, capitalism is an economic system built on unsustainability. You can follow Google Street View through the Amazon rain forest, but that doesn’t stop the fact it’s disappearing at 3,000 square miles a year. More locally, it is a system that can only survive through the rapid reduction of the employable labor force everywhere, as currently visible in probably all places where this text is likely to be read. Barbarism begins at home, most likely downloaded on an iPhone.

Even beyond current unemployment crises, however, it is important to realize the huge sectors of unpaid work across everyday life that have been normalized under modern capitalism, and with which it couldn’t exist otherwise. Such is the crucial recognition of feminist campaigns such as Wages For Housework, which sought to challenge the structural oppression of women as unpaid housewives, a form of labor both naturalized and made invisible. This is a fight that’s ongoing, and that’s becoming arguably more insidious with the rise of internships, work placements, and back-to-work schemes as rites-of-passage for the debt-laden neoliberal ubermensch.

The dispersed technologies as utilized in Paraproduction, and ubiquitous across our own lives, allow for increasingly dynamic, decentralized ways of interacting, with changing models of both business and politics following suit. As the disaster relief program following Hurricane Sandy recently demonstrated, large numbers of people can organize far more quickly and more effectively than existing hierarchical institutions: thousands of meals were served, and huge numbers of people were helped, by organized, networked volunteers, before the Red Cross were able to assist with aid. Such is the potential of these technologies. However is a potential that can only be activated through use. The mobilization of these technologies by business for the extraction of free labor from a young and already economically depressed workforce is counter to this, clearly. Refusal is the only adequate response.

Art provides a fantastic opportunity for experimenting with this. Yet what we have to understand is the interrelation of these experiments and the widespread and increasingly often immiserating practices of living in current society. Art needs to see itself as not just reflective of everyday reality, but recognize that it is everyday reality; that the systems of labor it perpetuates are the systems of labor of lived society. Transgression isn’t working; and surely we reach a point where we realize it’s no longer a sadist perversity that’s of historical urgency right now, but the production and reproduction of a better reality across all forms of life

In a way I think the introduction to this piece is morbid, now. And I remember Jesse Darling live-tweeting the closing event to this exhibition, and being excited, somewhere inside me. Because we have the structures already, and every time you refresh the page it reloads. Something different could happen, maybe.

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Stephan Sastrawidjaja 2 years, 8 months agoReply

Hey Harry,
I appreciate your contextualisation of these practices represented in the Amsterdam show. I think Ed Fornieles and LuckyPDF's work are very attuned to the disparate networks they involve in and their particularly "stagings" on and off line. I too am interested in how they very much differ to the way artists in other parts of the world are working within the framework of the digital, particularly Fornieles and his projects on Facebook. They invite players into a role, much like an interactive online video game, and fits with a larger trend on rehashing relational aesthetics I see in a lot of younger London-based artists and collectives like Oscar Murillo and AutoItalia. It fits within the context of participation grounded in the legacy of a vibrant liberal welfare state, one unfortunately under threat at the moment with claims for austerity. I am not sure if the others respond in the same way, like for example Hannah Perry and Benedict Drew, but perhaps I am thinking more of their remaining concern of the object rather than participation in the old sense. I also don't think these ideas about networks and their relation to process and exhibition are newly embodied in this artists alone: I remember these discussions happening in 2005 in NYC with artists like Wade Guyton and Seth Price, David Joselit's essays in October, Texte zur Kunst 2007-2010, and in Beijing in 2008-9 with Cao Fei. It's not really anything new except this element of the "theatrical".

There is something very different, as you note, between Haacke and Fornieles. Haacke's installation was very aware the audience of MoMA was not the general public but a very specific museum attending audience, one which had both the deep pockets to pay admission and to be free to even go to a museum on a Tuesday afternoon. Fornieles' very interesting–albeit problematically–respond to the every growing need to participate in online networks and communities, providing with every status update and tweet, "free" content. The audience has enlarged but to the degree that as you pointed out, we in the Global North have generally switched from an industrial to a service economy.

I wonder though if we can refuse. What might it mean to say no? I think it's too easy an option. Opting out is historically a continual fantasy. To leave, to escape, sort of like the main character in Into the Wild. And yeah he died eating some poisonous mushrooms he could have Googled. Rather than become Bartleby, I would say let's keep going, but perhaps differently, knowing full well anything creative can be subsumed into capitalist production?

Best, Stephan

Harry Burke 2 years, 8 months agoReply

Hey Stephan. Thanks for your comment! I appreciate your evoking the recent history/work of Guyton/Price/Joselit etc. Joselit's writing I've been finding particularly interesting at the moment, and I feel more emphasis should be made on this emergent lineage within art history.

I think, however, that my use of the word and idea of refusal was intended to be more specific than it perhaps comes across. Generally, I don't believe we can reduce issues such as these to the binary of inside and outside, of acceptance or refusal, as clearly it is impossible not to participate in many of these networks, or even within capitalism itself, as an economic system and ideology. The interest for me then comes in what way we can shape or alter these systems from the inside. Identifying your complicity within these structures implies a certain amount of responsibility, I feel, in the recognition that they are shaped and continually reshaped by their actors. Opting out is definitely a historical fantasy in this context; but it is also one that can be potentially devastating, as it allows existing relations to persist. So let's keep going, but, yes, differently (and maybe also collectivising on the way) :).

This having been said, I feel that when it comes to internships and other forms of complicity with free labour then it can be more simple. If all interns refused to work for free, then the whole institute of interning would be fucked. Huw Lemmey has talked about the idea of an intern strike, and imagine what a huge political force this body of disaffected workers could be if mobilised. Also this (underappreciated I feel) tweet from David Rudnick: https://twitter.com/David_Rudnick/status/295585165206495232.