Being online is a very distracting process. Years before, we existed without the consistent need to check things online. But things have changed, and sometimes, I feel addicted to that sensation–of having to check on whatever is happening online. It is unhealthy. It can be a very isolating process as well.
This reminds me of Alexei Penzin’s lecture about two years ago at Former West 2013. He was problematizing sleep and immaterial labor. Our constant presence and performance online and in social media demands our attention 24/7. Do we still sleep? Even as our body is asleep, our presence is now a constant as our online presence never sleeps. This also reflects on the present condition of labor. It is part of the immaterial labor that never stops, an ever-present performance. Sometimes I want to escape this consistent labor, yet at times, I feel like we thrive in it.
But the digital world is just a medium. You may use it to enable a real connection or you may use it as a substitute of such. There were countless times that social media was a means to an end–a means for everyone to catch up and get together in real life, and this still happens. I even have a first hand experience wherein people got together in social media in order to create real change and it worked, though such instances are rare.
Right now, being online feels like a constantly debilitating process. There are always questions on what to post and what not to. There are constant arguments and unhealthy debates that are going on about one issue or another. It is always an option to go off-line, and I assume that some who may read this post would think this, but there are practicalities involved in being online as well. Keeping this blog, for instance. Wherever these thoughts would take me, I would want to put this out there.
Are we constantly performing an immaterial labor for the capitalist condition? Is being online work rather than play? Is our current condition depriving us of sleep and real rest?
The Former West Congress: Documents, Constellations, and Prospects was participated in by around 150 students form all over the world. The levels of engagement in the Congress differed from the particular research focus and interests of the participants. The Learning Place, as programmed by Boris Buden, was focused creating and critiquing the concept of the CV and the civisizing of the art world. There were ten groups with approximately ten members each. This engagement enabled the critique of the concept wherein instead of the creation of a group CV, group projects and critiques were created instead. The lectures were divided into four programs–Art Production, Infrastructures, Insurgent Cosmopolitanism and Dissident Knowledges. Lectures, performances and programs were divided into those open for the public and those that were exclusively for the participants of the Learning Place.
Since my current research focuses on contemporary art, discourse, and criticism and I have programmed by parallel session participation accordingly. The lectures I participated in were Reading Timelines by Société Réalisté, From CV to Time Line: A Workshop on Labor and Social Media by Prof. Dr. Diether Lesage, How to Deal with What is Considered to be Art Today by Keti Chukrov, and Welcome to the “hood” by Nina Fischer and Maroan el Sani.
Representation and Performance of the Self in the Contemporary
The contemporary setting redefined the question of the identity and representation of the artist. Reading Time Lines looked into the implication and possible repercussions on the identity and marketability of the contemporary artist. Certain conditions, participations and presentations affected how contemporary artists would be defined and pegged into certain roles. On a critical level, the question on the representation of the artist within the contemporary art world and its existing institutions was tackled.
Prof. Dr. Lesage’s lecture reflected the realities and effects of contemporary art as situated in social media. These echoed in my study of Poleteismo and how social media serve as the platform for discourse and criticism. Lesage also looked into how the artist situates the identity in social media. Appropriating Negri, Lesage saw social media as a constant and permanent performance of immaterial labor. The artist’s performance in social media became part and was anchored in the contemporary role and identity. This also recurred in the Penzin’s lecture on sleep and how the consistency in the performance of social media deprived the rest in this performance. The presence and iteration of performance in social media re-contextualized and re-politicized contemporary issues of representation and identity, particularly of the artist operating within and outside of existing art institutions.
Art Production in the Age of Internet and Social Media
Boris Groys’ keynote lecture on Art Production demystified the concept of the internet as a medium. As opposed to popular figurations, he presented the internet as something observable and finite. It provided potent visibility, accessibility, and transparency. In contemporary art criticism and engagement, the internet democratized but at the same time de-skill. As presented in my previous studies, the internet provided a medium of criticism more accessible as compared to journals, books, and magazines. The key difference in mediation changed the level, depth and speed or artistic and critical engagements.
Dealing with the philosophical readings of the internet, Groys saw the password as contemporary subjectivity and that the hackers may break the code of hermeneutics within such subjectivity. The internet went beyond the panoptic as the cyborg may be the secret of subjectivity. Knowledge of the internet presented the reality that all codes may be broken, and for Groys, true utopia and true subjectivity may only be achieved through an unbreakable encryption. Such encryption, realistically and philosophically, was not yet achieved.
Presenting the shifting roles of an artist, another key idea presented by Groys was that of the artist as a blogger. He saw in the internet the return of the universal spectator and the presence of the artist in the online world revealed himself to the universal. With this paradigm, the presence of the artist to the audience went beyond what was traditionally accepted and assumed in the art world. The exposure to the wider audience with different mediation and filters redefined the planes of engagement with the publics.
The redefinition of the public and artistic planes was also seen in Hito Steyerl’s performance lecture I Dreamed a Dream. If there is an influx in online criticism and engagement that present the issues of democratization and deskilling, the same is true in actual artistic production. She compared the deskilling of art with the deskilling of killing and using firearms. This shift in social order resulted in unique conditions, such as in a production of an artist, as everyone now could identify oneself as an artist.
On a global perspective, Steyerl looked into how the Arab Spring changed the global political paradigm, yet failed in the actual establishment of this shift. This contemporary shift is a contemporary miserable, the spring that keeps us waiting. Her lecture was anchored to the concept of Chasing Spring, an art project that changed the end of Les Miserables, wherein Javert did not die. The presence and performance of online life presented a shift in paradigm, yet upon closer examination brought forward the question of whether or not there was an actual shift.
Such failures were carried over to Franco Berardi Bifo’s lecture, Game Over? Aside from the failures of the Arab Spring, he also saw the failure of the Occupied Movements. Though on the surface, with the help of machines, technology and the internet, it seemed that the shifting paradigms would stabilize. Yet as unraveled in the short few years, such shifting paradigms did not take root. There were fragilization and precarization of human lives and conditions that performed the failure in the European collapse. The empowerment superficially represented in social media, such as FaceBook, does not take a real shift outside of the cyberspace.
Social Change and Transformation
The contemporary is viewed as a shift and period of social change and transformation. Maria Hlavajova looks into the transformative nature of our times, similar to the shifts in 1989, a supposed breaking point for the contemporary. The three key points are–the contemporary moment, the return of religion, and the impact of technology. There points are clear in the 1989 shift and it is re-observed today. The contemporary moment includes symptoms of globalization such as migrations, diaspora, and problems of citizenship. This is particularly true in the Philippine setting as an ever increasing amount of Filipinos move into migration and diaspora, often with the conflict of citizenship. The global phenomenon is unescapable in the contemporary landscape.
The return of religion is also highly observed. Religious extremism is once again paramount in contemporary life, as well as the resurfacing of the debate of good vs. evil. My particular study in the contemporary moment, looking into Poleteismo, a controversial artwork by Mideo Cruz used this paradigm. The artwork became largely controversial due to the use of religious icons. Such icons brought forward the debates on good and evil, right and wrong, and the question of religious offense. The transformative nature of our time, instead of moving forward to religious openness, actually increases and tightens religious debates.
The conflict of Poleteismo is also observed online. The impact of technology in the contemporary art world is largely unexpected. When the controversial issue broke out, the art world was not ready to engage in the discussion and debate that was quickly unraveling online. The internet and social media provided a platform for artistic engagement that the public utilized, but which the art world is largely unprepared to face. This technological development is a platform of the contemporary that the art world is adjusting to and engaging in.
The contemporary defies the conventional fictions of histories. To address this, the Former West Congress looks into a new world order wherein crisis and instability can be a source of knowledge. One of the key lectures in the from of Dissident Knowledges is Christopher Kulendran Thomas and Tom Trevatt’s Art After Spectatorship? Instead of centering the discourse on the artist and the art world, they aimed to look into the spectators and what happened to the shift of spectatorship. They looked into the deregulation of art and the collapse of ideology that supported it. Contemporary art displays an emerging market despite the global financial crisis. They also looked into how interpretation became an external guarantor of contemporary art, removing the reading into form and the discourse of the artist. This lecture is visualized in When Platitudes Beomes Form, featured artworks of Christopher Kulendran Thomas and curated by Tom Trevatt. What they did was to take contemporary artworks from Sri Lanka and reinterpreted it for displayin a Berlin gallery. This gave a practical visual form of their lecture on art and spectatorship.
Such decentering of knowledges is also seen in the presentations of alternative histories and archives during the Congress. I was personally thinking these strategies and its possible implications in the writing of contemporary art and histories of the Philippines. Nida Ghouse and Hassan Khan used Khan’s memories of the American University in Cairo. Such memories displayed the shifting social order as the university turned from public to private. Such memories recalled the class formation and the creation of a specific elite, the subculture in the university, and the double alienation felt by the students as they are alienated from the institution and then alienated from Cairo. Another shifting in the formation of history is Rasha Salti’s Alternative Arab Almanac. She also saw the shifts in the Arab world from the 1989 contemporary until the present. She compared this to the difference in the presentation of histories of the United States. She reflected on the history of the Arab insurgencies framed in the different political imaginaries. On a more diasporic movement, Daniel Baker and Ethel Brooks presented A Roma Model/The Cosmopolitan Other. Their performance of claiming and moving forward as a Roma as they formed the concept of camps and encampments at the same time maintaining sustainability was against the accepted paradigm of a nation-state. Their continued movements into different physical spaces yet still being defined as Roma is critical.
These de-centered narratives provides a framework for a Global Agoraphilia as presented by Piotr Piotrowski. Globalization is often represented as the centering of the world into homogeneity. This perspective is critiqued by a global agoraphilia, the formation and critique in the use of public spaces. Artistic instruments enter and participate in the public space, thus shaping and defining public life that does not subscribe to the narrative of globalization. With this lecture, a performance my Aernout Mik was presented wherein he scrutinized the building blocks of the contemporary, creating noise and confusion, pushing and testing the limits of disobedience and non-compliance at the moment of revolt and rebellion. Such de-centering of knowledges to the point of chaos presented the challenges of contemporary art, history, and discourses. Being able to understand the global narrative at the same time critique and question it in the contemporary is critical in the engagement and discourse of the contemporary moment.
Sites of Contemporary Constructions
The experience of the Former West Congress will not be complete without the narrative of Berlin itself. The time for the conference was tight and the best way I found to experience it was to walk with Nina Fischer and Moroan el Sani, the artists. The site of the Congress, Haus der Kulturelen der Welt or The House of World Cultures is already reflective of the shifting paradigms of the history of Berlin and the contemporary. The building has been remodeled and rebuilt numerous times until it reached an iconographic status as the sites of contemporary art and discourse. Nina Fischer and Moroan el Sani, started with HKW and proceeded the small group to walk along Kreuzberg and Mitte, towards the sites and inspirations of their artworks that fought against the centered narratives.
The former Palast der Republik was being reconstructed according to the new narrative desired by the current state. They took us along Lustgarten and other parts of Kreuzberg and Mitte where performances, discos, and parties were conducted at different times to hide from the repressive state. It was never at the same place and the same time and there was no guarantee of finding the party. This served as the narrative in their collaborative work Phantom Clubs. The creation and redefining of art and history within the narratives of the state and the artists showed a continuing shifts and de-centering of discourses in accordance to their formed and preferred realities.
Maria Hlavajova’s proposition for the Former West explores the possibilities and the prospects of contemporary art. After 1989, it was initially assumed that art would finally be itself, as it will no longer be used as a tool for emancipation. It was not clear what “art itself” exactly is, but I am currently exploring this as a notion of contemporary art. It is not art for art’s sake, but art for itself, rather than being a means of another’s end. This largely leans on how we think and how we would think critically the discourse and narratives of the contemporary.
There is no simple or linear way in defining the contemporary. The de-centering of discourses, as already mentioned is necessary in this imaginary. There are also various shifts that are needed to look into, in our aspect of formerness. The concept of the “former” is a key to the Former West perspectives. Such western domination is currently being looked into. What is the aspect of formerness that is current, rather than what it is in a linear past. There is now an expansion of fields and consequences, along with shifts in balances and vocabulary. The transformative nature of our time is similar to that of 1989, though it comes to question where our shifts are. There are also the various posts that we need to look into–the post-colonial, post-communist, and in imagining the world other. The Philippines in particular is in a post-colonial present, and though not post-communist, it is also recovering from a repressive dictatorial past. The shifting and tilting balance, as well as the contemporary shifts in vocabulary needs to be addressed in the prospects and propositions of the contemporary.
The contemporary present is a shifting proposition that are yet to completely grasp. The location and mapping of contemporary art in this continually moving constellation is not easy, yet necessary in the engagement and grasping of the proposition. The realities of the conflicts of the contemporary are changing landscape in the transformative times. As the contemporary undergoes a radical social, political and economic transformation, art is at the shifting point rather than a peripheral tool in such a transformation. The next few years, as the political upheavals, technological and communication advances, and religious and moral debates are resolved, contemporary art will continually engage, ride, and eventually shift and transform the contemporary current.
As revealed in the discussions on Poleteismo, Filipino people are still looking for beauty in art. Numerous articles are looking, not just for beauty but also for the ennoblement of the soul. It almost appears that the Filipino aesthetic valuation and theory remain still with the “great masters” echoed by F. Sionil Jose. In another article by Isagani Cruz, he states that, “Instead of ennobling some Catholics, “Poleteismo” made them commit one of the deadly sins — anger. It made them receive Holy Communion with hatred in their hearts — the sin of sacrilege. It made them judge and therefore made them liable to be judged. It made them throw the first stone even if — let us not be hypocritical — no human beings except Jesus and His mother Mary were born without sin. There is provoking and there is provoking. The kind of provoking that Mideo Cruz did was not justified by the creative piece that he did. Critics always say that an artist should “earn” the effect of his or her work. That means that there should be a deliberate, successful effort by the artist to achieve whatever it is she or he wants to achieve. No art piece can be conceived simply on the spur of the moment. Every art piece that aspires to be art is always the product of long, careful, profound hard work. Therefore, based on the reception of the work, “Poleteismo” flunked the test of good art. It may be art, but it is bad art. It may be art, but it is not Art” (online). This kind of discourse becomes the popular and the norm for the Filipinos, which ironically, echoes some of the earliest aesthetic discourses. Plotinus, in his Ennead One: Sixth Tractate, echoes the same sentiment, “Such should be the experience of beauty, amazement, pleasant consternation, yearning, ardour, and excitement mixed with pleasure” (50). Such belief is also reflected by Francis Hutcheson in An Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, “Our sense of beauty seems designed to give us positive pleasure, but not positive pain or disgust” (97). These are early philosophies of aesthetics that are subscribed to by the popular writers and are therefore what most Filipinos are exposed to.
Looking back, one of the earliest theories on beauty is that of the Greeks. Their understanding of beauty focuses on the “1. wonderful and supreme; 2. as beyond all measures and distinctions, related to un-limit; 3. as pertaining to all things; 4. as pertaining to the gods and to nature and natural things as well as to human beings and their works, including works of art; 5. as pertaining to finite things, shapes, colors, sounds, thoughts, customs, characters, and laws; and 6. as inseparable from goodness and excellence (arete)” (Ross in Oxford 238). There appears to be a limited understanding of beauty as well as the canons of art in the aesthetic understanding of the Philippines. It is widely believed that there is a standard of beauty and a specific canon that should be followed for art to be considered as art. There is, not only a canon for beauty but also a canon on how art should be perceived. Silvers writes, “Canonical objects accomplish this not by modeling how other works should look (each should be unique) but instead by modeling how we should look at other works; that is, the eye or ear or sensibility of the prospective connoisseur is cultivated by exposure to art that the admiration of previous generations of connoisseurs has marked as canonical (Oxford 335). This kind of perspective was perhaps part of what inspired F. Sionil Jose in citing his experiences of seeing the works of great masters from great museums that make him an expert on judging the work as something which is not art. The discernment from a photograph is enough for him to determine that he can actually do the work and therefore declare that it is not art. Again, as this is a word by a National Artist, it pertains to a canonical valuation as well as a canonical perspective on beauty.
On judging beauty, David Hume’s Standard of Taste should be looked into. He says that, “It is well-known, that in all questions, submitted to the understanding, prejudice is destructive of sound judgement, and perverts all operations of the intellectual faculties: It no less contrary to good taste; nor has it less influence to corrupt the sentiment of beauty (Hume 494). Ironically, Hume also points out that not everyone can properly judge artworks as they may be lacking in their taste. He further states that, “Thus, though the principles of taste be universal, and nearly if not entirely the same in all men; yet few are qualified to give judgement on any work of art, or establish their own sentiment as the standard of beauty. The organs of internal sensation are seldom so perfect as to allow the general principles their full play, and produce a feeling correspondent to those principles” (494). The belief that there are standards to be followed and that not everyone is capable of having or discerning that standard is prevalent among the Filipino popular writers. For F. Sionil Jose and the others, it is the great masters of the art world that are the standards of beauty and greatness of artworks. Again, as F. Sionil Jose writes, “First, what is art? I go by this simple definition: Being an artist myself although I work with words not with the brush — if I can do it, it is not art. If I were to do the Jesus Christ commentary in oil, I would have used imagination, craftsmanship, and most important — originality. None of these basic qualities are in the CCP exhibit” (online). There is a canon of the medium–the oil, and not only that, but also the canon of looking at and examining the medium. Though there is a welcoming online discourse on the matter, it is still those with a larger voice that is given the larger space to express their views, as in the case of columnists and editors; more than the ordinary netizen or even the academics and theoreticians.
There is also the pervading belief that art should be pleasurable because of its beauty. Perhaps it is where aesthetic education of the Filipinos today came from and eventually got stuck there. Friedrich Von Schiller in his essay On the Aesthetic Education of Man, he states that, “For whole centuries thinkers and artists will do their best to submerge truth and beauty in the depths of a degraded humanity; it is they themselves who are drowned there, while truth and beauty, with their own indestructible vitality struggle triumphantly to the surface” (Schiller 580). The Cultural Center of the Philippines is still stuck in “The true, the good and the beautiful” that the aesthetic education of Filipinos became stunted in its growth. The Imeldification that struck CCP from its founding in 1969 until the present day was never truly replaced. Risqué, challenging and confrontational artworks that do not fit “the true, the good and the beautiful” suffers. The publicity received from the Imelda visit and her comments on KKK (Katotohanan, Kabutihan at Kagandahan) struck a nerve, not just on the artworld but on the Filipino public. Once again, this woman was listened to, especially as newspapers, such as Inquirer and Sun credits her for the closing of the exhibition. This discourse on beauty is traumatized and afraid of disgust and merely looks into pleasure. These valuation is where the aesthetic value of the Filipinos, even the institutions got trapped in. It is a good philosophy to a certain extent, but far too narrow and limited. It may apply more to the 19th century Filipino oil paintings but hardly to conceptual and popular art that numerous artists are exploring in the present time. Contemporary context of art will hardly apply to the concept of “the true, the good and the beautiful.”
In the discourse of beauty and the sublime, the sublime was hardly looked into within the popular discourse. Mideo Cruz’s Poleteismo would fit more into the theory and aesthetics of the sublime, rather than the concept of beauty that was insisted upon by the popular media. Guy Sircello in Is a Theory of the Sublime Possible? poses the possibilities of the sublime discourse that might also be useful in the discourse of Poleteismo. He first distinguishes the tripartite aspect on the issue of the sublime, “first, there are experiences of the sublime or alternatively, sublime experiences. Second, there is what I call the sublime discourse. And third, there is talk about the sublime (Sircello 541). In this context, he poses some assumptions, “The first assumption is that only sublime experience properly motivates sublime discourse and therefore that only sublime experience is the proper and ultimate subject matter of talk about the sublime” and “My second assumption is that sublime experience can and does occur in a large variety of personal, cultural, social and historical contexts, all such contexts also inevitably involving experience that is not specifically sublime” (542). He formulated a theme on the sublime which he refers to as an “epistemological transcendence” (542) that is supposed to validate a sublime discourse that can somewhat be quantified without falling into the trap of universalism. Despite this attempt, there are still various topics that needs further exploration, “(1) what it might mean, (2) whether it is indeed presented in sublime experiences, (3) what, if so, there might be about such experience that could present an epistemological transcendence of that form, and finally, (4) whether epistemological transcendence as so interpreted is warrantable or believable are tasks–among many other tasks–at least for more talk about the sublime, if not for a theory of the sublime. This exploration of the subliminal discourse will be much useful in Mideo Cruz’s work, particularly in the experience, discourse and talk that the artwork and the surrounding controversies inspired.
Part III of Art Conversations. I am working on this topic. I am posting it here, hoping for a response from those who wants to engage in this conversation.