Bleak Notes: Agnes Denes & Related Matters
The photo above is of Agnes Denes in her "Wheatfield" in Lower Manhattan in 1982. (For more details see Fuck the 'New' Nature Writing elsewhere on the RAP web) The postcard on the right was about the only freebee in the Barbican art gallery's "Radical Nature" exhibition held in the summer of 2009 and that, in the run up to the massively over-hyped – and subsequently disastrous - Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in middle December, marked a further sinister, though also totally uncontested, stage in the capitalisation of what's left of the Commons through the agency of art. The sumptuous catalogue, printed, of course, on recyclable paper cost a snip at £30 and wasn't even worth whizzing, not even for toilet paper. In the Royal Academy's "Earth" exhibition, held to coincide with Copenhagen, the catalogue was given away free, courtesy of Ed Milliband's "Dept of Energy and Climate Change": though there was no money for the Vestas wind turbine factory there is obviously plenty in the kitty for the bankrupt spectacle of art given a renewed facelift through eco-makeover! Moreover, the hefty entrance fee ensured you were looking at the truly hallowed seeing the only god left is money! The Commons centuries ago before enclosure became rampant had the immediate aura of a moneyless freedom where little was personally owned despite the heavy feudal control of a distant Lord of the Manor. Today in the Royal Academy everything is owned stamped with personal copyright to the very core. The future of eco as mapped out by the powers that be is about bio-capitalisation and art assists this process.
The postcard focuses on two events located in Dalston Junction in London's East End. The first is a mill constructed by the wretched 'experimental' French architectural collective EXYZT on the site of a disused railway siding, whose stock in trade appears very progressive (using "ludic tools" to create an architecture that "promotes encounter"), but which is built on a total suppression of all that was best in the real history and self-transcendence of the avant-garde of the 20th century, including the overthrow of the role of architect and the need to critique, and then depose, capitalism in its entirity.
In "The Mill" we are really "put through the mill" and our humanity ground to shreds as we are exhorted to participate in "theatre performances, bread making and tea time talks with artists". It is accompanied by the restaging of Agnes Denes 'pioneering' 1982 work at the tip of Manhattan, a twenty metre long "wheatfield" nauseatingly referred to as "a confrontation". Both are marketed as valuable reclamation schemes, turning "waste ground in Dalston into vibrant rural retreat for the people of the area and beyond". The EXYST make a point of targeting areas that "are not required by the real estate economy or social control, among them; wasteland leftover space or abandoned space". They also "work on flexible/neutral space offered by events like festivals or exhibitions", a position which opportunely justifies their shameless participation in the revolting Venice Biennale that would best serve humanity by being turned into waste ground. The depth of EXYST's "cool conservatism", their fetishisation of the role of architect is best seen in a chance remark in praise of "the working culture and UK architectural practise"! None of this shit could have come about if there hadn't been a complete suppression, from all quarters, of the revolutionary critique of art world over. Most alarming, in France after perhaps a hundred and seventy five years of almost continual effort where unravelling the boundaries of art had come to the point of coherent supercession, everything after 1975 was then fairly quickly and dramatically lost; in fact just at the point where the critique of art enmeshing with an updated critique of political economy had to be considerably deepened. Because this didn't happen rubbish like EKYST exists without a murmur of contestation!
Apart from anything else the building of The Mill was an inexcusable act of desecration as regards the area's wild life, because disused railway sidings should top the list of urban conservation priorities and be left as they are. Besides any navvy armed with a basic knowledge of vertical axle power generation could have done just as well and, crucially, there could be no doubting the honest intent that lay behind it. However, it would have lacked go-getting, artistic mystique, that most marketable of commodities. Basically, The Mill was an act of displaced salesmanship, a para-billboard for estate agents attempting to sell an area in a state of transition, with the 2012 Olympics the underwriter of last resort. Whereas previously it was space and outlook that sold dwellings, today, in formerly working class areas undergoing rapid gentrification it is ambience that pays dividends before they too become 'location' in the conventional property developer's sense of the term: hence the increased importance of psychogeography as a narrative sales pitch in London's East End which cunningly preys on the quarter's rich heritage of struggle and assimilation of immigrant populations. The glib present day, post economic crash supposition is that gentrification is nothing but a blast from the past something been and thankfully gone. Don't kid yourself. We haven't by any means come to the end of the bubble economy or fictive capital in general because the only game in town still is "we want our bubble back".
On the postcard there are instructions on how to get there and this says it all, as there is no tube station in Dalston. Less than a month prior to the Barbican exhibition there appeared in the Homes section of The Independent (June 24th 2009) an article on Dalston's property potential entitled "trains and games put Dalston in the running"". It transpires there are to be new train staions in Dalston, Hoxton and Shoreditch which will greatly improve the transport links for the area "in time for the Olympics" (our italics). This in turn is drawing in a better class of person who temporarily will feed off the area's multiculturalism before turning it into an arid reflection of themselves as happened in West London in places like Notting Hill. The improving transport links are encouraging developers to build 850 new homes, all of which are for sale beginning at around £260,000 for a one bedroom flat- and this at the height of the biggest recession since the thirties! (This fact alone makes nonsense of the passé, pseudo innovative lettrisme of EXYTZ and their hollow claim that they avoid areas of high real estate value). The prospective clientele will obviously be more exclusive than in the vanished era of 100% mortgages and some will be making a punt in the expectation property prices will rise because of the new transport connections. Even Prince Harry and his entourage have been seen in the East End, this and the Dalston exhibit setting the final seal of approval, together with the Olympics, on the area's eventual saturation gentrification. But meantime guns still rattle in some neighbourhoods......
Creativity lies in contestation but not through the pseudo-contestation of art. Beyond that the possibilities are limitless. On the simplest of levels really subversive slogans have far more positive impact. Agnes Denes pales into insignificance beside such graffiti as the anonymously penned wall slogan "If climate change was a bank it would be saved" (before appropriation by Hugo Chavez!) or that terrific frying pan (shades of the Argentinean mass protests of 2001?) carried by a Dublin anti-cuts protester recently on which was scribbled "fry the bankers". For sure there is a history of such sharp witted slogans being diverted by advertisers in order to sell product and we've known about that nasty little trick for ages. All this is very obvious but there again in these crazed times it isn't obvious at all.
Though the time of glamourised avant-garde art = big money of the YBA variety is over, the eco-art replacement in lower financial key has hardly begun. Though just as stupid aimed at nothing more than making names for its progenitors as real environmental concerns remain bottom of the pile it provides a momentum for all the dumb fucks – the greenwash Jedwards - that cannot figure anything out and / or ask any relevant questions.
(1) Did the financial boom with all that endless installation nonsense dependent on the wall of fictitious capital only cover up a long drawn out slow down in accumulation? Hence de-industrialisation in Europe/America as fixed capital upped-sticks for cheap labour areas of our planet?
(2) Put more bluntly: Did a search for profits through financial wheeler dealing which after Hyman Minsky became known as the "Minsky Bounce" of hedging and speculation merely encourage wildcard Ponzi schemes in which installation played a role? An acknowledgement if you like of Marx's "notoriously unclear" thesis - only published eleven years after his death - of the downward pressure on the rate of profit? Wasn't this reflected in the more covert, less direct language of Keynes acknowledging "the declining marginal efficiency of capital" or even that of an arch-monetarist, or rather, anti statist laissez faire like Von Hayek's comment that "margins must grow small as the roundabout processes of production increase in length"?
(3) Finally didn't Marx comment upon a capital investment growing more rapidly than the source of profit meaning that capitalist reproduction "at a certain stage conflicts with its own further development" whereby (and famously) "the real barrier of capitalist production was capital itself" thus encountering a contradiction that cannot be surmounted apart from through a destruction of 'the system' in its entirety?
(4) Is it possible - seeing we live within the capitalist mode of production - that ecology cannot be anything much more than a green mirage? Moreover, wouldn't a shift to alternative technologies followed by a subsequent slump in the price of fossil fuels result in the latter gaining the potential for new marketing opportunities without CO2 capture? Isn't any green organisation oriented towards statist politics –as 99% are – going to end up not too dissimilar to the ruling Fianna Fail / Green Party coalition in Ireland presiding over a massive attack on all those at the sharp end?
(5) Questions, questions and further questions and if - a big if - a sustainable, more advanced capitalism is now out of the question, will a floundering madness or systemic chaos become the final prolonged stage of capitalism whereby all values – and not just the law of value - lose raison d'etre?
(6) Will a perspective of transcendence – of total social revolution – become indefinitely postponed? And will the worst possible scenario unfold: Increasingly apocalyptic ecological depredation, total cultural bankruptcy side by side with total stupidity, grinding economic poverty with billions also pushed into severe mental depressions, collapse of all societal norms (e.g. what's left of the unclear nuclear family etc), and a vanquished community be imposed on top of all meaningful communication? And that's just for starters.
(7) This doesn't however mean there cannot be future mini-booms but will they – can they – have the same all-encompassing impact they had in the noughties? Isn't a significant mini-boom possible through the innovative bio-economy as we've hinted at elsewhere and won't all the eco-greenwash of green aesthetics latch onto this ad nauseaum creating green con goddesses out of people like Agnes Denes as everything falls apart?
Stuart & Dave Wise. December 2009