August 2003
volume 1, issue 2



"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 verbal torrents
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 they aspire.

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
technological innovation.

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 economic "progress."

"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," which he
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. "" 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 recession.

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 1999.

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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