We are all surplus: why the dark matter of the artworld matters

NOTE: This will probably change. this version is NOT going to be published in printed format; but a variation of this article will (alas a BETTER version of it). But you know, please feel free to comment; and yeah.

We are all surplus:  why the dark matter of the artworld matters.

Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture by Gregory Sholette


Lying on my bed, reading the excellent Dark Matter, I experienced a sudden sense of unease, mixed with a vast feeling of hope for something or someone, I was not certain who or what. Cracking open the archive left me unnerved, but even more unsettling was the sense that I had never read anything like this book.

In Dark Matter, Gregory Sholette asks us to imagine a world where art students stopped buying academic books and going to exhibitions, where all the amateur painters decided that they were wasting their time,  and the 1 billion $ craft business just stopped crafting. What would happen to the art-world economy?

We know that in the cosmos Dark Matter is something that exists but can’t be seen. It makes up 90% of the universe and is said what caused the big-bang, thus us! Cleverly, Sholette, has used this phenomenon to describe the thousands of us who work within art praxis but never get recognized.

But are our cultural economies secretly dependent upon this sphere of invisible social production from networks, systems of gift exchanges and collective forms of art practices?

Like Joseph Conrad’s book ‘ The Heart of Darkness’ which portrays 3 levels of exploitation*, the tens of 1000’s of us literally slave away with social productivity, as our only goal is what Karl Marx would call ‘Surplus’.*  Here in Dark Matter, this surplus becomes a critique of a political economy.

Sholette mines history for such cases in Dark Matter; his very own art practice is interested in movements organized by groups in order to empower individuals, which he then in turn has often explored himself in performances, videos, curated shows, and crafted models.  Through amazing in-depth historical research (specifically NYC) of the neo-liberal political movement, Sholette seeks to reveal the converse of these examples, exploring present-day assumptions and structures that enforce social hierarchies.  And this is why the ‘Dark Matter’ matters.

He believes, like myself, that the collective’s social productivity will provide a ground for free exchange that will ultimately create a platform for proper democracy. Governments know this too. It’s the reason why city high-street planning makes congregating so difficult and you can no longer line up at a bathroom on a plane. It’s the reason why Thatcher and Ragean off-shored manufacturing in the 80’s to stop unionization of laborers.

A Kafka Trail style real example is featured in Dark Matter: in the light of a bizarre change of laws in the Department of Justice post September 11th, a respected member of Tactical Media group Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) artist Steve Kurtz was under criminal investigation because of his art practice. It made international news. The FBI set about interviewing people who worked with Kurtz including his boss at Buffalo University. They question the department chair wanting to know why the CAE’s members identified themselves as a collective and not as individuals.

Much of Sholette’s research takes place close to his home in NYC, and centres on the role of the artist and on histories of Neo Liberalism in from the 80’s and early 90’s in the USA and UK retrospectively.  A group called PAD/D (political art documentation/distribution) formed in the 1980’s, of which Sholette was apart of,  is referred to in the chapter ‘grin of the archive’.  PAD/D – a product of their time- focused on organizing amazing socially active artists and organizations that typically would go under the radar.  Within a year they were organizing a bunch of radical projects from street protests to newsletters. They resented the artworld and any sort of advertisement to get into the market.  Their most viable project, I believe was Not For Sale.  A project that tried to stop the gentrification of the now Lower East Side, a place of Latino working class residents- now the postcode of the wealthy.*

Margaret Thatcher’s famous sentiment about market liberalisation – ‘there is no alternative’ – encompasses perfectly the ‘history from below’. Indeed, there is in fact NO ALTERNATIVE for those of us who are the ‘dark matter’, the ‘cubical slaves’.

Dark Matter asks what imagery this economic, neo-liberal system bequeaths to us; it’s gentrified post-modern luxury apartments, to the re-packaged debt and off-shore loans has created a raw, interchangeable social productivity of groups of people reacting towards it. Such a questioning of real-world alternatives runs throughout Dark Matter, which urges us to analyze the relationship between what we perceive, and what we assume is plausible.

Much recent writing about artist group activities employs some of the most impractical academic theory. Gregory Sholette writes with such passion that reminds us that there is a sensitivity that emerges for those that learn to work and enjoy working in a group. This hyper-individualism, upon which so much of the artworld relies, is part of a capitalistic strategy used to produce money, sex, power and of course exclusivity.  The groups of which I am apart of, and know of, subscribe to an alternative that is more open, and non-exclusive , and strives to be honest about the human costs created as a result of the production of art, and about the existence of underlying power structures within all of our relationships.

Part of Sholette’s approach in Dark Matter entails re-imagining not just the content of history but how it is circulated: comparing folk myths and political campaigning with grass-roots activism. Despite his fascination with the past, Sholette’s main concern is with the present and the future, in the search for the acknowledgement of forgotten histories and talented labor surplus.

We may just all be surplus, but if Sholette’s uncovering of these invisible practices tell us anything, is that the Dark Matter, really does matter.

To those who work in collectives, or through networks, who resist visibility, as well as to those who are refused visibility by mainstream culture, never fear! ‘cause Gregory Sholette has got your back.

Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture (Marxism and Culture)

ISBN-13: 978-0745327525

Publisher: Pluto Press (5 Nov 2010)

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