Radical media, politics and culture.

Adam Trowbridge and Jessica Westbrook, On "Critical Strategies in Art and Media"

On "Critical Strategies in Art and Media"
Adam Trowbridge and Jessica Westbrook

Hello All,

After asking [Nettime] permission to publish our book review in May 2011 and being slightly rebuked, we wondered if it even made any difference to share our hope for a contemporary approach to insurrection. We had taken our own surrender to heart and decided to wait. Recent events have shown our skepticism to be unfounded and we are sharing this now only to support those in the Occupy*, especially Occupy Wall Street, who have thus far refrained from naming demands — from, as Foucault put it, "demand[ing] of politics that it restore the ‘rights’ of the individual, as philosophy has defined them." No demands, no checklist, no politics as usual. "The group must not be the organic bond uniting hierarchized individuals, but a constant generator of de-individualization." Occupy EVERYTHING. No demands. Occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy,
occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy, occupy...

In solidarity,
Adam Trowbridge and Jessica Westbrook

“Originally published by Theory in Action, Vol. 4, No.2, April 2011 (©2011) DOI:10.3798/tia.1937-0237.11017 www.transformativestudies.org
(The text below is pre-editor copy, apologies for errors)
Thanks to Eva Swidler, Book Review Editor, for requesting our review and John Asimakopoulos, Editor in Chief, for publishing it.

Critical Strategies in Art and Media.
Edited by Konrad Becker and Jim Fleming. New York: Autonomedia, 2009. 182 pp. Paperback $12.95. ISBN 978-1570272141.

Eleven years into the new century, it may be time to discuss terms of surrender. Not a surrender to any civilization but the surrender of civilization to those in control who would use any political participation as a crutch for their failure. The question is not if but when giving up on civilization will be seen as the only rational political stance. Currently, the critical strategy of removing oneself from a failed situation and ceasing participation in a bankrupt enterprise is rarely given serious thought1. Giving up is constantly under attack from politicians and those who benefit from the current situation. Activists remain in the service of an imagined future that only extends the crisis, unable to wean themselves from strategies already four decades old. This is the case in the discussion documented in Critical Strategies in Art and Media, a new book from Autonomedia that documents a conference of the same name. From the predictable return to 1968 as a vague yet singular moment to the insistence on optimism — recuperating even hopelessness and pessimism for continued production and activity — the most common strategies discussed are pragmatic approaches to working with those who fund art projects. Little discussion occurs concerning critical art practice beyond hopeful slogans that parallel Nike’s “Just do It”.

While there is much to consider, discussions range from the role of technology in the 2009 Iranian elections protests to art student interest in digital media, little is covered with any critical depth. The book serves as a concentrated set of symptoms that arise and divert discussion when art and activism are the focus: mainly variations on mythologizing activism still mired the Sixties (especially 1968) and insistence on optimism and positive activity.

Konrad Becker, Director and co-founder of the World-Information Institute, sent an email to the mailing list, announcing the Critical Strategies in Art and Media event. His introduction included the following:

"Since I am sick and tired of the blandness and dumbed down gullibility of what one gets to hear on issues of cultural practice (even on esteemed and generally very well informed lists) I am looking forward to a vital and much needed debate...What strategies elude the Creative Industries? seemingly infinite appetite for things radical? Are there any strategies that can elude being reduced to styles in the service of sales, or are critical practices doomed to play cat and mouse with the forces of consumerism?"2

The panel consisted of an A-list selection of those working in a zone orbited by artists and activists: Ted Byfield, co-moderator of the Nettime mailing list; Jim Fleming, Editor and Publisher at Autonomedia, a publisher of radical books; Steve Kurtz, co-founder and member of Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), a collective of tactical media practitioners; Claire Pentecost, author, artist-activist and Continental Drift through the Midwest Radical Culture Corridor collaborator, Pete Lamborn Wilson, author of Temporary Autonomous Zone; as well as others who pop into the discussion or make video recorded statements.

Konrad Becker opens the discussion with a 1956 quote from filmmaker and Situationist International co-founder Guy Debord, "All aware people of our time agree that art can no longer be justified as a superior activity, or even as an activity of compensation to which one could honorably devote oneself." Becker adds that “not only is art dead but also activism has not moved for a while and starts to smell funny.” Why begin a “vital and much needed debate” with a Debord quote from an essay that precedes the founding of the Situationist International? With dérive, a Situationist approach to moving through urban space following one’s desire, recuperated as an exercise to raise awareness for college art students and détournement, in which new works of art are not created but instead hijacked from existing works and reused as propaganda, less of a radical strategy and more of a description of YouTube and Internet memes, it seems an oddly dusty place to begin. While it may not have been Becker’s intention, this dated quote directly connects the conference to the events of 1968, specifically to May ’68 in France, where a general strike is often credited partially or substantially to the Situationist International. It is unlikely that the panelists, many with long histories of activist art, would be willing to shrug and agree that art and activism are dead. Thus Becker’s introduction predictably becomes a negative against which the panelists define themselves and the world in positive terms and sets the stage for a discussion that rarely moves beyond the Sixties conceptions of activism.3

As an example of the amorphous, mythological conception of history that permeates the conference, Steve Kurtz uses his temporal distance from the Debord of 1956 to define not only Debord but to explain Debord’s “program”. In short, his explanation is that Debord wrote when art was limited, unlike today, when Critical Art Ensemble is ambivalent about using the label “art” for their work. This semantic switch is imagined as a potential escape from Situationist International condemnation. From Kurtz’s perspective, Debord might now even approve of some art activity. It is easy to recuperate the 1956 stance against art by citing historical conditions, but Debord did not stop writing then. Two years after Kurtz’s first activity under the name “Critical Art Ensemble,” a year after the core CAE group formed, and after many actions by artists (and others) pushing the boundaries of art and activism, Debord wrote, in Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988):

"Since art is dead, it has become extremely easy to disguise police as artists. When the latest imitations of an inverted neo-Dadaism are authorized to pontificate gloriously in the media, and thus also to slightly modify the decor of official palaces, like court jesters to the kings of junk, one sees that by the same movement a cultural cover is guaranteed for all the agents or auxiliaries of the State's networks of influence."4

Kurtz’s musing that “I am not sure Debord would object so much,” when discussing the cultural activity of Critical Art Ensemble and other contemporary activist artists, is undone by the later quote. It seems quite possible that Debord would object strongly to the multiple instances in which Kurtz defends projects that CAE (and others) make by taking money from corporations and gentrifying organizations.

In the book’s discussion on critical art and media, broad enough to cover the relationship of 1968 to “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” and the CIA’s LSD-based mind control, the panel neglected to discuss contemporary activism. While there is mention of text mobs, art and science crossovers and video game “intervention,” there is no discussion of the radically updated civil disobedience strategies of ACT UP, or their media acumen in bringing attention to and action on the AIDS crisis. There is no discussion of the French journal Tiqquin, or the related book The Coming Insurrection by The Invisible Committee. There is no mention of Tiananmen Square or Girogio Agamben’s radical last chapter of The Coming Community. Agamben suggests that the Tiananmen demonstrations existed as a community without condition of belonging, a new concept of being, closely related to and likely the inspiration for The Invisible Committee’s promotion of insurrection against “the very idea of man.” As recently borne out in Egypt and Libya, Agamben says that wherever these communities “peacefully demonstrate their being in common there will be a Tiananmen, and, sooner or later, the tanks will appear.”5 This is in stark contrast to a CAE lecture described by Steve Kurtz called “And then the police came...” The lecture covers the times that CAE was arrested or disciplined for working in public space. The difference between the arrival of the police to disrupt minor interventions and the arrival of tanks to put down (or join) an insurrection perhaps best underscores the lack of vitality in the Critical Strategies in Art and Media discussion. It is not a matter of one or the other so much as it is that one is thoroughly discussed and the other is absent.

“What is to be done?” This question is repeatedly asked in Critical Strategies in Art and Media. Clair Pentecost says that “feeling hopeless just makes me mad” and Steve Kurtz says of Konrad Becker “I have always admired his absolutely unrelenting pessimism...at the same time the guy never quits.” The kernel of this need for activity and the forced march to optimism is found in a statement by Jim Fleming: “Somehow there has to be a bridge that allows some exodus out of that old stuff into whatever the new stuff is going to turn out to be — which feels in some fundamental way fairly unpredictable...and that is probably a plus.” While discussing the possibility of escape from the current political and social situation, his quote would be equally at home in one of Seth Godin’s bestselling books on marketing. Capitalist society constantly seeks new stuff: territory, people, images, and ideas to “monetize”. When civilization is not in a crisis but has become the crisis, the idea of forming a bridge to the future, once again providing a new life-support system for a near-dead civilization, is the root of the problem. As discussion continually returns to what can be done, there is never any question whether anything should be done.6

The authors of The Coming Insurrection proposed a contemporary question, a “vital and much needed” question without presumption of optimism or activity: “How do we find each other?”7 Their suggestion is that people must find each other through the morass of a decayed civilization in order to actively commit to its collapse, already in progress. The book does not begin with a call to action but by declaring, without hesitation, “Everyone agrees that things can only get worse.” This declaration is alive, without optimism —at least for society or political activity within society. This is current critical situation in art.

With the coming collapse in mind, Claire Pentecost and Brian Holmes’ project (with friends) Continental Drift through the Midwest Radical Culture Corridor, and the book documenting it, A Call to Farms, rides the line between support for and withdrawal from the current civilization. The group toured the American Midwest, seeking out examples of radical culture and independently-run farms. It is not the road trip nature of the enterprise, which is perilously close to a Sixties fantasy, but instead the focus on farms and alternate economies that will remain as civilization’s collapse hastens, that makes this a vital project. Without direct reference to The Coming Insurrection, their trip through the midwest is a response to a call to find each other. Sarah Kanouse describes it, in her introduction to A Call to Farms, as “more a process than an organization, more a verb than a noun.” This project, of all those described in Critical Strategies in Art and Media, seems most direct and the closest to a critical strategy combining art and media.

As a gesture and as an event, Critical Strategies in Art and Media had a serious goal and began as a challenge to “the blandness and dumbed down gullibility of what one gets to hear on issues of cultural practice”. While there is no doubt that the participants were committed to their projects and positive change, a “vital and much needed debate” did not occur, derailed as it was by the Sixties8 and a endless return of calls to action and positive thinking. It is worth investigating the work of all of the participants, especially Claire Pentecost, Ted Byfield and McKenzie Wark.9 The aforementioned books: Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, The Coming Insurrection, Coming Community, and Continental Drift through the Midwest Radical Culture Corridor are required reading for those interested in the intersection of art and activism. With those books read, it may also be worthwhile to read Critical Strategies in Art and Media, if only to consider the multiple opportunities missed and plan a return to the topic in a future discussion, perhaps in the tone originally put forth by Becker.


1. A notable exception is Stephen Wright’s “Spy Art: Infiltrating the Real” in Afterimage, Sept Dec, 2006, Volume 34, Issue 1-2, pages 52–54. Wright discusses art that may not seek an audience and notes “Each year, thousands of artists simply quit the artworld, choosing to pursue art in a different mode, in the mode of competence rather than in the mode of performance, to adopt a Chomskian distinction.”

2. Becker, Konrad, “Critical Strategies” 25 August 2009. Nettime listserv.

3. At one point in the discussion, Judith Malina, a founder of The Living Theater, says that “I think ’68 isn’t over, it is going on all the time.” To not only be stuck in the shadow of 1968 but for it to never have ended is a nightmare prospect worthy of Philip K. Dick.

4. Debordy, Guy. Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Malcolm Imrie. New York: Verso, 1988.

5. Agamben, Giorgio. The Coming Community. Trans. Michael Hardt. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

6. Pete Lamborn Wilson correctly identifies the question “What is to be done?” as “The good old Leninist question” and then, quite seriously, responds that he is a hippie and suggests that people “drop out.”

7. The Invisible Committee. The Coming Insurrection. Trans. unknown. Los Angeles: semiotext(e), 2009.

8. Ted Byfield makes several valiant attempts to question the focus on a mythologized past and points out that “Entire master narratives are both being deployed against younger people on a narrative level, and denied to them on an analytical level.” Unfortunately he is undermined and misunderstood, perhaps intentionally. His most= outstanding criticism, “I’m uncomfortable with 1968 serving as a cudgel to beat people over the head in order to declare their historical circumstances inadequate.” goes unanswered.

9. Wark has written extensively on digital and internet culture and might have added much more to the discussion but was absent during the brief moment anything related to contemporary, digital work was discussed.