(networked) every whisper is an echo on my heart

Marlie Mul, XYMEMORY. Installation view, Arcadia Missa.

Appendix, Extra Extra, QT, Kunsthalle New, Courtney Blades, Preteen Gallery, American Medium. Portland, Philadelphia, Chicago, Mexico City, New York. My map of North America is dotted with these small, independent art spaces. I'm trying to sort of render this image in my mind: an oblique angle in Google Earth that captures all of these different pins scattered across the continent. It doesn’t really work. But despite the geographical distance between them, these spaces exist (or existed) in close proximity—socially, generationally and aesthetically—surviving in precarious times by pooling resources and occupying unwanted urban fringes. I haven’t visited any of them, but they seem to foster a significant proportion of new and exciting work at the moment, serving as the cached foundations to a panoply of daily art blogs reproduced across the social web.

Closer to home, London has in the same time frame experienced a ban on squatting and an exacerbation in rent of consistently 6-10% annually. If the neoliberal city is a paradigm of market-driven and socially exploitative globalization, London seems its primary apologist, the trading of inner city residents for a quick £4 million in the international market being just one of the rapidly normalized revelations breaking in the last few months. 

Arcadia Missa is an art gallery, publishing house and studios opened by Rózsa Farkas and Tom Clark in February 2011 in Peckham, South London, to create a space for performative and digital art practice in that area. No one has a spare garage in London, or even a garage for that matter, and even on the urban fringes the property market is voracious—this is an area that saw an 11.8% increase in rent in the last year. Capitalism knows what it wants, and you can’t fault it in that respect: these are radically belligerent preconditions for a radical art space.

How does art respond to this? Chris Kraus, in the first chapter of Where Art Belongs, graciously and beautifully writes about the gallery Tiny Creatures, which operated out of a storefront in Echo Park, Los Angeles, between 2006 and 2009. When the gallery opened, it was located between a bootleg trailer, an ice truck and a vacant lot. Its closing party was covered in the Los Angeles Times and looked like a “portrait of the new LA,” featuring neurosurgeons, fashion designers and visiting curators. It was nonetheless still only meters away from homeless men selling oranges. Kraus eulogizes this as a space of resistance and alterity, a space if not outside of capital then momentarily unindebted to it. I enjoy the story for exactly these reasons. Yet such temporary heterotopias seem ever more fleeting. At what point does resistance become more permanent? When does the heterotopia become a safe and more sustainable space for different forms of living and discourse?

Tiny Creatures garnered art from a local scene of punk/DIY artists and musicians. In contrast, the galleries mentioned above act almost like temporary residencies for a network of artists across the global North. More than a new localism, this reflects the fact that the conditions for art’s production follow the very same fluidity that propels the spread of neoliberal finance.

Installation view, work by Hannah Perry and Clunie Reid as part of Arcadia_Missa Open-Office.

Arcadia_Missa Open-Office, featuring, amongst many others, Riyo Nemeth, Yuri Pattison, XYM, Ann Hirsch, Jennifer Chan, Clunie Reid and Hannah Perry, was a five-month program running between July and December 2012. (Following the project Arcadia Missa published a book titled Open-Office Anthology, to which I contributed.) To mark a shift away from the model of the white cube as a display space, organizers built a number of oblique office-type props—a staircase, a computer terminal, a door frame—into the gallery, emphasizing its role as a site of production. The program was intensive, featuring thirteen shows over the five months, at one point with an opening almost every week. At the heart of this was a desire to “address precarity as experienced by artists and other immaterial labourers working today.” Specifically, as Arcadia Missa told me during a recent interview, it was an attempt “to understand precarity outside fetishisation of the term,” to destabilize rather than re-perform what veers dangerously close to a lifestyle choice for the digital precariat.

A primary example of this is Harry Sanderson’s Human Resolution project, staged at the gallery in September 2012. This involved the installation of a 3D scanner within a self-constructed frame, the image of which was then projected. Visitors were invited to place part of their body in the scanner and see a carefully contorted image on a screen in front of them; a sound element echoed the frequencies of these interactions. Exploring the interface between the body and its constant mediation, the artwork created a beautifully ephemeral elegy to the self, the grayscale rendered image flickering and disappearing before you had time to fully ingest it. The work, with its images of distorted human forms, could be read as a visualization of the pressures of precarity on the body and identity, any promised recuperation of our financial or ideological sanctity within neoliberalism eternally elusive. However, to read only this into the artwork is naive and self-eulogizing, as Sanderson is surely aware. The title refers to the human currency behind our culture’s fetish for high resolution imagery, and indeed the blood cost of the majority of consumer technology. Not merely a victim of this system, the viewer is trapped within its perpetuation, if teasingly offered fleeting glimpses of the way out. To fetishize precarity is to fetishize these global networks of exploitation, although the viewer has seemingly little choice but to interact and understand.

Harry Sanderson, Human Resolution (2012). Interactive installation with 3D scanner and real-time audio and video.

As Maurizio Lazzarato has argued regarding the concept of immaterial labor: “Immaterial labour produces first of all a ‘social relationship’ (a relationship of innovation, of production, of consumption)... This activity shows immediately that which material production ‘hid:’ in other words, labour produces not only commodities, but first and foremost the capital relationship.” Although perhaps simplistic and outmoded, such analysis opens up interesting questions in relation to this work. To what extent do internationally networked, precarious sites of production such as Arcadia Missa, and the equally networked and precarious artistic practices that they foster, then replicate or rupture these processes? To what extent is the product of this artistic labor a “social relationship,” and to what extent does this produce “the capital relationship?” There are no straightforward answers, but we can at least recognize that these art practices share the same sense of interiority as the galleries themselves—whatever statement they make about their ideological or economic conditions, it will only ever come from inside the system it operates against. If it changes it, it will have done so entirely through being it.

In economies of attention, the gallery becomes as much a platform to temporarily host the artist as a physical base for their objects. This is not to underplay the physicality of the installation, which is of course hugely important, but simply to recognize that it consists of multiple kinds of materials, social as well as physical. A gallery (and Arcadia Missa particularly with its anthology, journal and ejournal) is often a brand, web presence, network and publishing house as much as it is four walls in which to house objects; what are highlighted as the fundamental materials are the relationships that unite all these aspects. Yet if the O-O program recognized this, skitting between all these different events, installations and occurrences in an attempt to sort of stretch and prise this materiality apart, it also served to underline the instability, both emotional and financial, inherent in such conditions for producing art. Precarity is groundlessness, and whilst this may be liberating, it is only liberating insomuch as we make new grounds, and more stable platforms for production.

Yet how to create more sustainable and more resistant platforms? Are there alternatives to precarity? Such questions transcend art, and enter the workplace, home and familial relationships of maybe the majority of an under-35 generation. The 20th century promised so much rebellion, rejection and rock and roll; what it eventually gave us was Bono and iPads. It feels weird to be in my early 20s and craving so much stability.

Amalia Ulman, Screenshot from Ethira (2013). Messaging application for iOS.

On June 28th Amalia Ulman’s show Ethira opens at Arcadia Missa, the first of three core exhibitions in their 2013 program (networked) every whisper is a crash on my ears. Ulman is followed by Megan Rooney and Holly White and, in October, a render farm project by Harry Sanderson. Whereas some O-O shows were open for just a few days, these will mostly be installed for a month. Around these will be a supporting program of events, publications and shows. The length of an exhibition is of course in no way correlative to depth of engagement or criticality, yet in a culture of such accelerationism it feels amazing to slow down and breathe a little and feel the muscles relax. Whispers imply breathing and they imply intimacy, and even if this is distorted and amplified in the program title, there is nonetheless at the base of it a subject and a subjectiveness that is so often missing in discussions surrounding networks and labor. To again quote Arcadia Missa directly, “as O-O drew to an end we began to realize that there is a gap in left theory that understands networks yet somehow in part negates subjectivity—ideas on cognitive capitalism for example.”

As alluring as it might be to imagine a network of bots trading thoughts and affinities with each other, and as beautiful as it might be to imagine that aesthetic, networks are ultimately permeated by human desires and subjectivities. Any sort of critique of this territory therefore has to begin at this level. It may be attractive for established male artists to fantasize over the Universal Addressability of Dumb Things, Night at the Museum style, however, as intelligent as a £500 smart fridge might be, it doesn’t really care about you if you can’t afford it—it’s completely wrapped up in the ideology of its production. Art’s not going to provide any answers, but by reconfiguring these politics to allow for agency it can create space for more interesting things to happen.

Open-Office dealt specifically with precarity as an economic condition. (networked) suggests that precarity is too singular a lens through which to view this work. Instead of focusing solely on the economic instability, perhaps there is in fact another kind of stability to be found in the strength of the social relationships have emerged around A_M, both as a venue in South London and as a node in wider, more global networks. The (networked) program, though of course yet to happen, seems bound up with this sort of subjective engagement and consequence. Arcadia Missa is not networked in the sense that bots and refrigerators are networked, but in the sense of desires and affinities, of 4am Gchat conversations and torrid love affairs, of imaginary living together in separate rented houses. If the art practice that emerges within these conditions is one best defined by its status as a practice, with multiple projects and installations given coherency through the artist’s subjectivity (Ulman, White and Rooney in different ways present an intuitive understanding of this), then maybe this sort of gallery is best defined as its own sort of practice, if not art then a similar form of embodied critique. Maybe this can be read as utopic or optimistic, in which case we can devolve, and call it something closer to living, a collaborative and embodied engagement with the personal-is-political.

Peckham has had a lot of bad press recently. Foreseeing this shift, Arcadia Missa was formed straight after Clark and Farkas left art school amidst the realization that they soon wouldn’t be able to afford the area where Farkas grew up. Clearly the current gentrification and monopolization of both artistic and social space in Peckham is anathema to any sort of self-generating sense of community or freedom. In fact, it is directly aggressive to all who can’t participate in it, and who most likely can no longer afford their own homes as a result. In many ways A_M forms the best sort opposition to this, marking itself out from the Peckham discourse vacuum by building slow, solid critique into its program, exemplified by its How To Sleep Faster journal and now also its anthology, yet tied into a careful selection of artists and collaborators. David Harvey has demonstrated the link between the shape of our cities and the shape of our social selves: “The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from that of what kind of social ties, relationship to nature, lifestyles, technologies and aesthetic values we desire.” The subject networks, affinities and desires that emanate from A_M should be seen as directly relating to this, and again tied into more distributed networks. Space is better when it’s multiple, however, and I wonder what other things can emerge around it, and right out of it.

Meanwhile, over in Stoke Newington, parents with four-wheel drive prams buy designer treats from bespoke cupcake stores. It’s too easy to see London as fucked; a poster city for neoliberal policy that’s becoming increasingly hostile towards any non-privatized models of art’s funding. If Arcadia Missa is to be eulogized it’s not for existing but for remaining to exist, despite and in direct opposition to this, and for radicating outwards too. Networked hearts, networked bodies, networked selves <3.

Amalia Ulman's exhibition Ethira runs from June 28 through July 27 at Arcadia Missa. The Ethira app is available from The Mac App StoreOpen-Office Anthology is available to purchase here.