Editors note: This piece was originally
written by Yates Mckee for a small publication produced by the artist
David Thorne on the subject of Oliver Ressler and Thorne’s artwork
“Boom!”. We are reprinting McKee’s essay here in
full, because of the essential criticism it offers of generalized
protest art. Written last year, McKee has expressed to the editor
that he feels that the piece may be too harsh towards Unions whom
he recognizes as having a necessarily pragmatic approach to their
mediation. He wishes to center the criticism herein on activist groups
whom he feels are less tied to a solid constituency, and hence can
afford experimentation with their signifiers.
"if only..." This is the frustrated refrain which begins
each of theovergrown, absurdly dysfunctional web-addresses advertised
by Boom!, an agitational project by David Thorne and Oliver Ressler
that has appeared in a range of distribution and display formats over
the past two years. Instead of the instantaneous moment of brand recognition
we have come to expect from this ubiquitous (and conventionally brief)
linguistic structure, here we are addressed by a series of breathless
that rehearse the fantasies, anxieties and defense mechanisms of a
system-globalized free-market capitalism- confronting its own internal
crises. These deranged apologetics deliberately fail to elicit from
us a positive identification, for the conditional requirements following
from the "if only" in each case go too far in foregrounding
the specific contents of the universal "freedom" to which
Somewhere between wistful day dreaming, beleaguered exhortation, and
self-conscious strategizing, these crypto-capitalist voices seem to
concede that the actual and potential crises of consent they allude
to - among workers, the poor, the hungry, the third world, protesters-
are immanent to the system rather than simple accidents to be written
off or ignored. Were challenges to the legitimacy of capitalism a
temporary problem rather than an ever-present threat, the raison d'etre
of these statements would eventually become obsolete: the universal
benevolence of the market would reveal itself as a self-evident principle
and the necessity of discursive mediation (along with the broader
"apparatus of monitoring intervention regulation and policing")
would come to an end.
Affirming that consent cannot be taken for granted
(particularly at moments of acute dislocation), the texts hyperbolically
perform a kind of "how to" manual, enacting the rhetorical
displacements through which the interests of capital are made to stand
in metonymically for those of Society as a whole.
The importance of this logic is indicated in the title given by Thorne
and Ressler to the series in its entirety. "Boom" is a term
frequently applied to periods of intensive capitalist expansion, endowing
the process with an aura of generic emancipatory dynamism that obscures
the constitutive unevenness on which all capitalist "growth"
depends. This finds its canonical formulation in Joseph Schumpeter's
account of the "boom-bust" business cycle of modern capitalism,
which he described as a ceaseless process of "creative destruction"
driven by entrepreneurial initiative and
Schumpeter was acutely aware that booms (such as those connected with
cotton, steel, railroads, electrification . . . ) depended crucially
on high levels of cultural-symbolic cathexis and speculative investment,
making them finite, unstable and prone to over-production. Instead
of an occasion for collective political struggle on the part of those
rendered most vulnerable by this dynamic, the recurrent crises generated
by capitalism were for Schumpeter a quasi-biological process of "natural
selection," a call for individuals to flexibly adapt themselves
to the risk, uncertainty and self-reliance proper to the course of
"If only people would be as self-regulating
as markets . . . " "If only people would believe that a
rising tide lifts all boats . . . " "if only people would
understand job security as the permanent state of insecurity …"
These Schumpeterian calls uncannily echo throughout the texts of Boom!,
whose contents bear a historically specific relationship to the linguistic
and visual format which they inhabit.
Citing Marx, TJ Clark has recently suggested that
a defining criteria for critical artistic practice is that it "teach
the petrified forms how to dance by singing them their own song."
Clark distinguishes such "singing" from simple "mimicry"
and "hectoring from the outside," going on to assert that
this art must exhibit "an intuition . . . of precisely the central
knot in the dream life-the true structure of dream-visualization,"
associates with "the imagery of 'information,' and the idea of
the world being newly robbed of its space-time materiality by a truly
global, truly totalizing apparatus of virtualization."
This over-determining ideological "knot"
described by Clark resonates closely with the millenarian euphoria
of the late 1990's, the period whose "petrified forms" Boom!
sets into probing dialectical motion. "www._.com" is of
course the format of a Universal Resource Locater (URL), the standard
addressing system used by corporations to direct consumers to their
sites on the World Wide Web, a technological development that figured
prominentlyas both an investment and a symbol in the "New Economy"
before its ruinous collapse in 2000-1 and the onset of the current
Thorne and Ressler's texts rub this "dream-knot" against
the grain, reinvesting it with traces of "friction" forcibly
disavowed by the utopian promise that this time it would be different.
In one sense, this might seem like a superfluous gesture: in the aftermath
of the NASDAQ crash and the extinction of dot-com mania, the millennial
discourse of the New Economy is already widely regarded as an embarrassing
relic of youthful naiveté and speculative excess. However,
rather than moralize against exceptionally irrational behavior or
foolishly unrealistic expectations, Boom! draws attention to the crises
generated as a matter of course by finance capital in search of ever-higher
returns on its investment. The texts imply that crisis-job insecurity,
income polarization, downward pressure on global working conditions,
overproduction-not only coexists with, but is actively shaped by the
movements of money and information in the seemingly immaterial realm
of electronic space. These crises unfolded during the boom as part
of the boom, only intensifying with the latter's collapse and the
massive waves of downsizing and unemployment coming in its wake.
In dwelling on the outmoded, divested symbol of the New Economy, Thorne
and Ressler do not indulge in morbid post-boom gloating, but offer
a historical insight apropos of Walter Benjamin's observation that
"the 'state of emergency' in which we live is not the exception
but the rule." Paraphrasing Barbara Kruger's interrogatives,
we could translate the meta-question posed by Thorne and Ressler's
texts as follows: "whose boom? whose bust?"
We have thus far considered the signifying operation of Boom! in terms
of an imperative of spectatorial disidentification with the universalizing
address made by neoliberalism. While evident in the disjunctive relationship
between the familiar logo-structure of the URL and the exaggerated
gestures of ideological crisis-management set forth in the texts,
this imperative becomes even more complex when considered in relation
to the variety of presentational formats in which Boom! has appeared,
each implying different functions, conditions of reception and potential
addressees: as storefront window-displays competing for the attention
of urban pedestrians; as detachable centerfold-posters in Afterimage,
a quarterly magazine devoted to critical media studies; as wall-installations
in exhibitions of conceptual art; as email attachments circulating
through activist and artistic networks; and finally as large mobile
banners for use in street demonstrations. While it would be unwise
to hierarchize these formats according to a single criteria of publicity,
here I will focus on the final one mentioned-the protest banner -
precisely because this medium, by virtue of its physical proximity
to the space of "the street" is frequently expected to achieve
maximum levels of political relevance, accessibility, and effectivity.
Furthermore, the protest banner explicitly announces its instrumentality;
it is designed for application in the service of an end outside of
itself, which is why it is barely afforded the status of a "medium"
in the discourse of art-criticism. Indeed, this relation of means
and ends traditionally governs the distinction between "art"
and "propaganda" in critical discourses of left and right
alike. As Adorno put it in "Commitment," artistic pretensions
to "directly" engage in political struggle necessarily imply
"accommodation with the world," a stance that harbors sinister
totalitarian impulses at odds with the open-ended "it could be
otherwise" whispered by "autonomous art." Were artists
to attempt to accede to the register of actual social transformation
rather than alluding to the empty potentiality of utopian alterity,
the result could
only be ethical impoverishment, or worse.
In overtly revisiting the medium of the protest
banner, Boom! complicates these critical admonishments against artistic
instrumentality, reactivating Benjamin's productivist injunction that
"[the artists'] mission is not to report but to struggle; not
to play the spectator but to intervene directly." But this complication
should not be confused with a simple affirmation of the values in
question; to reactivate productivism is not an attempt at resuscitating
it: whereas the resuscitation appeals to a lost ideal that can be
unproblematically applied to the present, reactivation involves a
critical, transformative engagement with a putatively anachronistic
object in order to redeem its utopian spark in the present constellation.
Indeed, a primary function of Thorne and Ressler's designs is to disturb
conventional assumptions about the unproblematic functionality of
protest art itself- the immediacy of its claims, the identifications
it elicits, the responses it activates. But instead of abandoning
this fraught terrain altogether in favor of a secure critical distance,
Thorne and Ressler's banners operate in its midst, signifying diacritically
vis-à-vis the heterogeneous mixture of cultural forms associated
with the recent wave of mass mobilizations in the North against the
institutions of global economic governance beginning in Seattle in
During much of the 1990's, radical theory had
been preoccupied with cyberspace as the privileged domain of counter-publicity
and activism, with Critical Art Ensemble going so far as to declare
that "street activism has become an anachronism now that there
is no longer any geographic or physical center of economic or political
power." But the wave of demonstrations since Seattle has led
many to echo the words of Allan Sekula: " . . . something very
simple is missed by descriptions of this as a movement founded in
cyberspace: the human body asserts itself in the city streets against
the abstraction of global capital." This observation resonates
with the renewed interest on the part of artists in the space of the
street, many of whom have linked their practice to the micro-politics
of the demonstrations themselves.
Among these practices, a prominent aesthetic tendency from which Boom!
marks its difference is the carnivalesque. Following Raoul Vanageim's
dictum that "revolutionary moments are carnivals in which the
individual life celebrates its unification with a regenerated society,"
this tendency offers artistic creativity as an instance of direct
democratic participation. The papier-mâché puppet workshops
led by David Solnit, for example, are founded on the principle that
"everyone can and everyone should make art." The gigantic
puppets produced in these workshops have been among some of the most
memorable images associated with recent mobilizations, orchestrating
a kind of moral pageantry in which grotesque anthropomorphism plays
a prominent role. Such street art assumes the task of providing a
colorful and affirmative counterpoint to official
representations of demonstrators as bearers of social negativity,
whether the "anti-social" property- destruction of black-clad
anarchists or the "anti-globalization" stance attributed
epithetically to the movement more broadly.
For instance, according to Solnit's open call, the goal of "Art and
Theatre Against the World Economic Forum" in January 2002 was "To
qualitatively contrast ourselves with WEF corporate executives . .
. making it clear that they are a source of terror and misery and
that we are the alternative. ANOTHER WORLD IS PAINTABLE . . . we will
create a festival of life worth living for and celebrating. We will
reclaim the streets as a gallery to exhibit our visions of the world
that will replace theirs." In this passage, Solnit offers a variation
on the quasi-utopian affirmation "Another World is Possible" that
has become the unofficial motto of the counter-globalization movement.
But Solnit's substitution of "paintable" for "possible" suggests that
the "other world" of the future is known in advance and is already
present as an ideal in need of simple visual presentation through
the "use of positive, clear and inspiring images." In fact, the demonstrators
"reclaiming the street" provide their own referent: "We are the alternative."
In a similar auto-referential spirit, John Jordan of the Reclaim the
Streets movement advocates an "art that is not about representation
but presence, a politics not about deferring social change to the
future but about change now, about immediacy, intuition and imagination."
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