3 Art Exhibitions in London I Would Recommend You See Before They Close in Mid-January

One of the main things I do is look at art. There are some pretty big shows in London at the moment that are set to close in mid-January. I want to hype them because they’re quite political in subject matter, and because they’re still open, so you can actually get a chance to see them, rather than having to just take my word for it on whether or not they were any good. 

 

O’ Magic Power of Bleakness at the Tate Britain, with artwork from Mark Leckey [Closes 5th Jan]

Leckey Magic

Retrospective for Mark Leckey, who’s Scouse-accented work has this time involved recreating the motorway underpass that him and his mates used to mess about underneath when they were teenagers. So it’s a large theatrical installation with multiple video projections, like an open plan cinema hall that’s been designed and built specifically for showing just one film. Taken together, the videos have an overall runtime of just under an hour, and offer a hazy impression of youth culture in Britain since around the 1970’s – and I think they form a modestly personal, non-linear recollection of the artist’s involvement with more-or-less subversive popular cultural styles. 

The cumulated affect is a decaying hallucinogenic volatility, etc., but most interesting is that, through his professionalisation as one of the world’s most successful contemporary artists, Leckey has become estranged from his class, yet still maintains a strong attachment to some of its symbolic codes. Now, his take on the working class is on its sportswear branded contingent, those who’ve designed themselves in line with a sort of subcultural visual ideology, and it is in this focus that Mark Leckey places a deeply uneasy question about class authenticity right at the centre of his work. Has the working class ever had its own culture? 

 

If UR Reading This It’s 2 Late: Vol I at the Centre for Contemporary Arts: Goldsmiths, with artwork from Tony Cokes [Closes 19th Jan]

T Cokes

Retrospective for Tony Cokes, showcasing a selection of his video works from the early 90’s to now. For the most part, it’s a pretty basic set-up of texts taken from political speeches and essays relayed on primary colour backgrounds, set to tasteful selections of alternative pop music. Kodwo Eshun’s Mark Fisher memorial lecture from 2018 gets a full 40 minute treatment and is played in a nightclub-like environment, allowing the Fisher/Goldsmiths legacy to continue apace, which is very nice if you’re into that sort of thing. 

Cokes’ intention is to make theoretical texts more accessible, so the artworks are unapologetically didactic. The emancipatory political potential of producing and listening to music is offered as a recurrent point. The artworks attempt to show how cultural influences shift across national and racial boundaries in the historical development of dance music styles. They celebrate the creation of temporary conditions where joyful collective experiences seem to break down ideologies that enforce types of segregation. It is very Goldsmiths.

In the basement is one of Cokes’ early video works, FADE TO BLACK, which doesn’t adhere to the colour-text-sound template. It’s an erratic 30 minute composite of found footage, quoted text, and politicized music about cinematic representations of blackness, and you should take the time to watch because it is very angry and very stylish. (An analogue to this can be found in Elia Suleiman and Jayce Salloum’s film from the same year, Introduction to the End of an Argument – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JI3AeaRUUhk)

 

Misbehaving Bodies at the Wellcome Collection, with artwork from Jo Spence and Oreet Ashrey [Closes 26th Jan]

Jo Spence Wellcome

An exhibition of text and photography from Jo Spence with videos from Oreet Ashrey in an impressively cotch watching environment (beanbags and blankets are provided). Across 40 years, Jo Spence has developed a diaristic approach to photography to reflect on how her working class background has shaped her experiences of mental and physical illness. In scrapbook style, Spence wryly criticises gendered representations of the body and links this to her own feelings of pain and dejection. To deal with some of the fallout from this, Spence developed a technique she calls photo therapy. This involved reenacting and photographing moments of struggle that she and members of her family have lived through. Photo, text, and video documentation from this experiment are featured in the exhibition. 

Performance: Imperialist Knowledge Environment – ALARM

Instructions

 

Materials: 

Scissors

A pack of playing cards

Some boxes of matches

>10 smoke alarms, velcro-attached to cloak

A fog machine

A ladder

A copy of Marx’s Capital Volume 1

 

Actions:

Place playing cards on ground

Add matches

Chop up some cards

Set off fog machine

Add more matches

Rearrange cards + add more matches (imitate development of monopoly capitalism)

Set off fog machine

Stand up and walk towards the fog

-ALARM-

Walk to ladder

Climb ladder

Pick copy of Capital Volume 1 up from top rung

Hold up Capital + thrust it into the ceiling

Climb down ladder

Switch off smoke alarms

A Poem About Climate Politics

Commonplace to hear that

We must save the climate.

But who or what is, the climate?

Mystical “we” – Humanity

Mystical “climate” – Nature

(Mystificatory complexity)

Bad superhero films

Greta Thunberg extension of Hollywood superhero logic, 

leaders, icons.

Superhero Government

Passive, thankful masses

much like cinema audience.

 

A Poem About Climate Politics

 

pt.1 We Don’t Need a Leader, We Need an Icon 

This is a story about the end.

Of civilization

Earth

Life

And when we really get down to it,

Me. 

Although heroism is one of my least favourite ideologies,

we don’t need a hero

We need justice

We need words

We need action (and)

We need actionable words. 

They imply, “Only politics can save us now.”

But who is/will do the politics

We need, a politician

No, more than one

We have only one… earth.

We need ideologically overcommitted superheroes.

Yes, more than one.

Perhaps, need it be a people?

Parliament of Ghosts

Parliament of Light

Parliament of Flora

Peacefully, peacefully burning down

It is time for a meeting

It is always time for a meeting

We have no time for a meeting

We need words now – No!

We need doctors farmers scientists builders designers

We need society

And

We need a data journalist.

We need a hero who’s superpower is brand awareness

We need some kind of super government, 

and a super-villinous government

to act as narrative counterweight

with a nu-disco soundtrack,

but not by Daft Punk if possible.

We need a bible

and a disguise

and a catastrophe

But what I say, 

no bearing on the matter, 

I must become,

an iconic politician.

pt.2 A Movement to Call it What it Is

State it emphatically!

Struggling for words.

Scandal

Disgrace

Vile

Shame!

There is 

Too much complacency

Too much anti-superheroic indifference

Too much rejection of morality

A leap – A leap of faith

A leap into action

A great leap, forward!

Up in smoke

Trial by fire

down in flames.

Strange resonances

(remains)

Leap, Stage

(Fall, break)

Storyboarding salvation

Arrange, theoretical, abstract

distance, just now hitting home

Q. Is climate change already worse than ‘The Blitz’? 

So you’ve memorised the approximate death toll for every discrete major atrocity from the past 250 years of world history, 

what? No it’s not contentious. 

When you tell people this they either ask why 

with a note of incredulity why? Why have you committed such atrocity figures to memory? 

Or they immediately launch into being a pedantic dick about how (im)precise your figures are. 

And they say stuff now like, 

“No, we liked the Blitz, it was good actually. And climate change is punishment for leaving the lights on.” 

You lazy, imaginary mil…

“Hey c’mon we need action. Somebody non-violently blow something up, 

10 cars, whatever, just, I mean…”

And then they, THEY then leapt 

onto the stage of history with such great force that it broke, 

causing to fall: a bourgeois non-democracy that had once appeared 

to order the entire arrangement.

As if everything – the world – now tipped on its side. 

As if that hour glass had finally flipped.

pt.3 Cops Against Nature

Decomplexification – Mystificatory

Dis-coherence

To incohere, disarticulate

Malodorous conception

Joyous contamination

Mini-recycling plant on desk

We all need to cut down

“Whoever touched it last”, that’s the rule. 

Sick of blaming ‘myself’ 

Sick of blaming ‘the system’ 

accountability

change

ambitious

government

endowed with superpower, 

abolish 

laws

no matter real 

world significance

a government to trust, as if it were… Space?

We want to reduce 

the scale of climate change 

to limit the damage it will cause 

for those with aspirations to own property

more than is strictly necessary for personal use even,

even though it contributes 

to driving this economic vehicle 

into the crevasse it was always supposed to

like it’s human nature. 

Business owners

Human nature

Landlords

Human nature

A nation of shop customers

Human nature

Powered by aspiration to

Powered by compulsion too

Irrational post-spontaneous guilt

You can’t take people at their word,

look at what they do.

But ritual tradition.

‘Activism’

Ever been at a protest and thought, ‘wtf am I even doing here?’

You should have! 

But then the cops.

SHIT ON THE COPS.

Don’t kill cops until 

there are enough of us.

When you have been the law

can hardly be forgotten.

Long-term 

program 

pedagogical

required. 

No guarantees.

I love anarchy, but…

pt.4 I’m Awarding Myself a Medal

I said I’ll do it.

I’m doing it.

I’ve done it. 

I’m Lenin,

I’m Data,

I’m the world in a box

You surely understand

it’s very snowy now, 

there are problems here. 

There are families there,

you, have to

melt into Planet B.

As we all must.

Doesn’t rub.

Strikes.

Hello? I’m not in my body right now.

I can see, but I can’t move my eyes,

I can only select, and focus,

zooming into

darkness

but not real darkness.

A medal of excellence for services given 

to environmental nurture.

A medal, with my face on it?

(I must become)

Imagine me

The Face of Nature.

Forget me.

Now close your eyes

Really imagine 

the ___ face of nature,

and describe it to us…

Now we will amalgamate 

all of those descriptions

of this face 

and turn it into 

A Computer Generated Image

Then we will 

use facial recognition software

to find the closest match – this natural person.

Who they’ll arrest.

Unless a match is found

that they can strike to fight and win

and we’ve a team of data journalists backing this up.

For Marx was not right

And Marx was not wrong

For Marx was a data journalist

with a method, correct.

So far, it seems, 

I’ve healed myself from symptoms of

this narrative of government

salvation nope,

won’t do nor hope.

Heroic cynicism, 

never good enough.

So once again, attack stage. 

Funding Application (Open Call)

Please respond to this open call opportunity for funding the following project:

Relevance Recovery Unit – An Exhibition Proposal

 

Stanley Silverdale, applying on behalf of ‘The Cast-Off Club’ – £4500 funding application for cultural operation to take place April 2020.

Brief: The Relevance Recovery Unit is a participatory art exhibition that invites visitors to present obscure artefacts from their personal collections of subcultural ephemera. A changing set of 25 objects will be selected for display with explanatory texts. The relevance of visitor contributions to the exhibition will be evaluated by The Cast-Off Club.

RECENT RELEVANT WORK

The Cast-Off Club is a collective that has been meeting fortnightly for the past 6 months, operating as an informal research circle/support group for people who have known the joy of being in a creative community. The club hosts discussions on ‘the interrelationship between personal and social narratives of disappointment’ in a show-and-tell format.

Frequently asked discussion questions are: Why is this object of personal interest? Who was involved in making it? What are they doing now? Does the object help us understand society? Why/Why not?

RMN108830NU

All members of The Cast-Off Club have experienced ‘self-perceived failure to upkeep previously healthy involvement in a relevant subculture’. As such, the club offers a supportive social dynamic for talking about the (possibly) worthless objects and ideas that we (may have) wasted the best years of our lives on. It is a therapeutic oasis.

THE EXHIBITION

The Relevance Recovery Unit exhibition will focus on themes of obsolescence, trends and fads, hype, resurrection, and resuscitation. These issues will be explored and questioned through presenting 25 objects on value-enriching plinths.

The plinths will be set in beds of quicksand. And this sand will be mixed at varying densities relative to the perceived cultural shelf-life of the objects that they each hold. As these plinths sink, however, the items themselves will remain suspended at height by nylon wires extending from the ceiling, thus conjuring the appearance of their having escaped a descent into grainy obscurity.

Visitors will submit their own cultural artefacts to receive similar treatment within the exhibit, and video interviews with the most exceptional participants will be conducted to produce an infotainment film about how ‘unrealistic’ aspirations manifest as impediments to social success.

A luxurious leather-bound 300-page brochure is to accompany the show. The landmark publication, titled ‘Re-possiblizing the Obsolete’, will feature gold-leaf embossed diagrams and tips on how to emulate The Cast-Off Club’s enormous potential.

PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT

Upon completion of interview, our most impressive gallery-goers will be offered rank, insignia, and sense of belonging. Such decorated attendees will be taught the basic movements of our distinctive exhibitors’ saunter.

We will keep in contact with our favourite participants through WhatsApp, Slack, Facebook, Trello, Google Sheets, email, text, phone, voicemail, fax where possible, and home visits as appropriate (e.g. to install fax machine).

To ensure thorough public engagement there will a quiz about the exhibition, which visitors must pass if they wish to retrieve their cloakroom items. Extraordinary performances will result in winning other people’s cloakroom items.

WHO IS INVOLVED

Since our collective identity is defined by a lack of validation, we call upon the application assessors to look upon our relative absence of prior achievement not as a potential liability, but to see it for what it is: a desirable quality.

HOW THIS WILL DEVELOP THE CAST-OFF CLUB

Hosting this exhibition will give The Cast-Off Club a raised profile, allowing us to refine any future participant evaluation/selection processes. The allocation of funding to the primary applicant (Stanley Silverdale) will boost The Cast-Off’s self-esteem and reinforce The Club’s undemocratic hierarchical structure (which is part of the artwork). Ultimately, the Relevance Recovery Unit exhibition will give our members something meaningful to live for.

BUILDING AUDIENCES AND MARKETING

Much of our budget will be allocated to building a special leaflet launching device (R&D ~£3,500) which will be used to distribute promotional material into busy public spaces. We will supplement this marketing activity with a series of sponsored litter picks.

We will definitely need to spend some money on web content. In 2018, 90% of UK adults were recent internet users, and whilst such an unusually high trend seems unlikely to hold, it makes sense that we invest a correlating 90% of our marketing budget in online promotion. However, we have decided to take a gamble on the leaflet launcher.

As valuable members of the community, we hope that local residents will be visible at our exhibition. We will encourage their presence by displaying a tastefully modest ‘welcome’ sign in one of the windows.

VENUE

We will rent an ex-industrial space in Catford for two weeks, at a cost of about £500. The preparation will mainly involve excavating parts of the floor in order to provide adequate quicksand chambers.

COSTS

The as yet unaccounted for £500 will be spent on costumes for members of The Cast-Off Club, consisting of: silver robe, those massive goth boots, lace vest, and bucket hat.

PARTNERS

We are looking into developing a partnership with the UK military charity that has already pledged 12 crates of F16 Energy Supplement Drink for the opening party. We hope to gain more gratuities from them in return for branding and an unobtrusive army recruitment table at the exhibition.

RISK ASSESSMENT

We should not let fear hold us back. Of course, there are such things in life as regrets, but if constantly preparing for unlikely accidents prevents us from making the most of our precious time here, then that would that not also be a cause for regret? At the end of the day, you just don’t know. So we’ve got to strike a balance with it, really.

Having looked into quicksand safety, we seem alright, as most qs related deaths aren’t from drowning, but rather from exposure after getting trapped. Seeing as the venue has central heating, we should encounter no problems here.

 

See promotional video here:

Stanley Talks Through Some Ephemera

 

Francis Fucku

Fukuyama

Fukuyama – feigning remorse for what he has done.

Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ title is possibly the greatest troll of all time.

The eminently quotable and easily graspable line from Fukuyama has been an outstanding source of utterly wasteful debate, reaching impressively across the divide of academic and popular writing to the detriment of all. 

Hundreds of thousands of students across the globe are still repeating his troll, with varying degrees of credulity. It devastates with an outré simplicity. Setting up one side of an argument with such an unreasonably totalizing position that anything proceeding against it appears to carry endless depths of reason, whilst anything the goes with it appears to bear the dumbfounding brilliance of common truth.

Fukuyama’s title, ‘thesis’, or ‘blatant troll’, offers a fall-guy of extraordinary proportions, made cheaply available to any writer who wants to bolster their certitude. On the other hand, by virtue of it being a platinum-standard contrarian posture, the ‘thesis’ was repeated so often as to gain a talismanic status. 

By setting up such an impressively weak barrier to constitute the position of two oppositional camps, the ‘thesis’ develops into an almost supernatural source of enervation. The global scale and intergenerational longevity of this affect is precisely what makes it a contender for ‘greatest troll of all’   

So to conclude, Francis Fukuyama won the Cold War. 

Same Old Brexit, Always Boring.

Brexit has so far proven to be one of the most boring things to make art about. 

I’m not saying that society has to be like interwar Germany, or revolutionary Russia or Cuba to give artists something really worth talking about (although wide-scale militancy does tend to quicken the pace of artistic thought). But when reflecting through the prism – Brexit – citizenship – identity –

as most artists have decided to view the phenomenon, it feels like most of what we’re getting are rearrangements of already well-established cultural signifiers, with the phrase ‘Brexit’ tacked onto it for the sake of seeming up-to-date. 

It looks contemporary, it’s not.

Is it impossible to take Brexiting-society as the source material for any artistic product worth attending to? Is a technocratic process instigated by a split within the ruling class so far removed from everyday life that attempts to represent it can only find expression through floating national tropes emptied of any historical specificity? 

Meanwhile, the only actionable response at play is ‘a people’s vote’. The name itself gives the impression that ‘people’ primarily take action through voting on a reform that ‘the people’ only ever had the slightest part in shaping, and the imaginative lack inherent in this notion of ‘people’ is mirrored in the current popularity of ambitionless art about Brexit.

My thesis: Because the Brexit process is fundamentally boring, most of what anyone has to say about it is also boring.

So here’s my contribution to that:

Sorry. 

At least I’m not waving a wee EU/British flag about it. 

Gross To Strangers

ntS1

Self-Help Industry Meets Guerrilla Advertising: The Grim Reality of NotesToStrangers

Andy Leek, A.K.A Notes To Strangers is someone who writes life-advice on brightly coloured a4 size stickers. Placed on those mildly ubiquitous street features, green/grey electricity cable boxes, a noisy colour palate and indistinct scrawl are Andy’s chosen visual language, with each instance carrying the sign-off, ‘Instagram: Notes To Strangers’. This injunction to interact with the message online (Instagram has reached such platform notoriety that it now functions as both noun and verb) leads viewers towards the official online repository of his interventions, the NotesToStrangers Instagram account. Here, Leek disseminates screengrabs of other people’s Instagram photos that feature the placed stickers with a #NotesToStrangers hashtag, to his brand’s accumulated audience of over 114,000.

This one-step-removed method of distribution lets Andy plot an intermediary node between his offline and online activity, a distancing mechanism that possibly serves to protect him from legal repercussions for vandalism whilst also being a means to increase his brand’s ‘interactivity’.

As his project began to pick up steam, he pulled focus towards what he reckons to be the mental health benefits provided by his work. And it’s done him wonders, having recently enjoyed mainstream international recognition from liberal and conservative media channels, along with invitations to speak about the project at schools, universities, and creative industry events.

On the face of it, thinking up chirpy bits of life advice and spreading them round the city seems a fairly anodyne, happy-go-lucky activity. The problem is that despite having felt empowered to speak his unique voice to the world whether it wants to listen or not, it appears as though Andy has failed to recognise the potentially harmful and reactionary politics that underscore his practice. We might argue that the cultural logic at play here seems to be an extension of Cupcake Fascism, Post-Cupcake Fascism – a more aggressively psycho-capitalist permutation of kitschy infantilizing over-niceness that has stopped employing graphic designers to soften its look and has fused with the lifestyle dogma of self-care. If that seems like too much of an exaggeration, we can at least say that Notes To Strangers is haplessly peddling a schlock philosophy wrapped up with the notion of wellness – a currently very marketable mode of ‘positive-thinking’ spiritualism that identifies the problems of capitalist subjectivity as primarily a problem of the individual’s mindset.

This is to say, whilst it is true that individuals do have some autonomous power over how they perceive the world, it is not a helpful analysis if it draws us away from recognising that material living conditions also shape this perception. The problems we find in society do not stem entirely from an insufficiently ‘can-do’ attitude to life. To think otherwise is a delusory idealism that ultimately serves the interests of those who stand to benefit most from perpetual inequality and exploitation – the ruling class.

Although Notes To Strangers alludes to the widespread anxiety, depression, and various other mental health problems experienced as a condition of living in a society torn by contradictory impulses (e.g. go to a job you hate and be under instructions to smile like you mean it), the empty phraseology so characteristic of Andy’s work, actually serves to mask the conditions that produce the maladies he’s trying to alleviate, ironically making it harder to alleviate those conditions.

The social basis out of which these mental health effects develop is hidden behind the rhetoric of self-improvement. For Andy, the need to have a more positive outlook appears symptomatic of a widespread negative outlook. This is not just hollow, it’s worse than that. For enacted through their bright-eyed insouciance, (the very quality that gives Andy’s images their charm), is a process of reactionary obfuscation. And I think the complexity involved in decoding this contradictory operation (something harms because it looks innocent) jarring with its knowingly facile mode of presentation, is what makes these objects so utterly frustrating to encounter.

And it is their burying of unbearably exploitative social relations beneath this mass of detritus he has created that makes them politically objectionable.  

Nts2


Notes to Strangers is saying the wrong things and making art look bad.

The Banality of Art Driven by Market Logic

If he was doing this purely out of the goodness of his heart, it could perhaps be tolerated as a little absent-minded tomfoolery, one quirky guy just trying to do something that he believes is nice for himself and others – but of course, belief in such pure goodness of intent is a powerful ideological fantasy, one that covers for the ways in which actions and expression are guided by material interests.

It shouldn’t escape our notice that Andy Leek appears to bare little shame when it comes to marketing the NtS brand and products. Maybe his professional background in the advertising industry has had some influence on that, or perhaps he completely believes what he says about helping people. In any case, the entrepreneurial thrust of his work would understandably place limits on what the NtS project can do in terms of making artistic interventions into spaces already dominated by the visual residues of capitalism. The political commitment implied by disrupting capitalist visual space is sacrificed at the altar of popular appeal, resulting here in a disempowering spiritual banality.

ntS3

In terms of advancing society (as opposed to the place of individuals within it) towards an awareness of its own capacity to bring about change, Notes to Strangers is just as much a waste of effort as any other advertising campaign or unqualified self-help guide. Because in order to sell as commodities, those notes must appear as the covetable product of a unique individual, stake some claim on social effectiveness, and still keep in tact the logic of individual spectatorship and consumption as the primary way of changing ‘our’ world. This is not how society changes, it’s how it already operates, and it’s part of the reason nothing ever seems to change for the better. It’s this very familiarity of individual self-improvement invested with social spirit that makes it so marketable for a chancer like Leek. Ethical consumption isn’t enough to bring about an end to class society.

So there’s a tension between what NtS claims to do, and what it definitely does. The claim is that these highly visible messages in public places offer a therapeutic benefit, whilst simultaneously serving as adverts for Andy Leek’s personal brand. In reality, I would argue, this therapeutic benefit is only really available to those who already identify with their alienation from society. There is nothing transformative or critical in the slogans he writes, and certainly no practicable call to enact meaningful social change, just a business team motivator style affirmative suggestion that you must think differently to adapt, and (implicitly) desire your exploitation. In a sense, Leek is using his artisanal products to profit from the psychological vulnerabilities wreaked by capitalism. This is unfortunately one of the absolute worst things that art has the capacity to do.

So with this in mind, it seemed fair to re-direct Andy’s fraught project with some ‘guerrilla brand-consultancy’ services.

All of the above, by the way, is kind of a preamble that I felt necessary to justify my interference with these works. Whilst the magnitude of my annoyance at the NotesToStrangers project might seem irrational and disproportionate, I do at least hope that the reasons underpinning that annoyance have been clarified. 

ntS5

Forging a Visionary

So my efforts are hardly worthy of Elmyr de Hory, but Mr Leek’s minimal-craft aesthetic does render his product more readily open to copying, which is either a laudably public-spirited gesture or just something he presumed wouldn’t be a problem. 

Here are some new Notes To Strangers posters, made in the hope of highlighting some of the limitations in Andy’s messaging.  

ntS4

 

nts4-copy.png

In order to see if anyone would validate the authenticity of my craft, I spent some (too much) time sifting through Instagram posts bearing the NtS hashtag, and eventually I saw…

IMG_3854 (1)

‘The guerrilla must move among people as the fish swims in the sea.’

(screenshot cropped to preserve original IG poster’s integrity)

 

Until recently, Andy was trying to sell some of his posters for over £3000 a-piece (though he has now dropped the asking rate to between £60 and £220, for some reason), I thought about setting up an online shop and undercutting his prices.

but then, something horrible happened.

 

ntS6

Juan Cruz Walks into a Mirror (exhibition review)

Juan Cruz sets himself up as brand ambassador to self-pitying bourgeois malaise, which, if the autobiographical video piece, I don’t know what I’m doing but I’m trying very hard is anything to take seriously, would appear to be the defining characteristic of Cruz’s life. By his own admission, the 12 undignified videos that comprise this artwork are “just boring stuff”, yet this acknowledgement fails to deter the esteemed professor of fine art from publishing it regardless. So what went wrong?

 

Juan Cruz art
Video Still from Juan Cruz, I Don’t Know What I’m Doing But I’m Trying Very Hard, Matt’s Gallery, London, September 2018

 

It is not unusual to find videos in which the videographer speaks about themselves, they’re called vlogs. And Juan Cruz, with all the wisdom of an arts education, has managed to find a way that amplifies the chafing self-referentiality of this particular format. Not content with merely making himself the subject, he also makes a subject out of the process by which he makes himself the subject. As in, he talks about why he’s making the film as he’s making the film – and has dared to expose this to us in the final cut. What is supposed to come across as a satisfying through-the-looking-glass moment, ends up looking more like the unwitting showcase of a man walking into a mirror.

Without properly recognising the reasons for his position of good fortune, Cruz feels sympathy for himself. This trait is not so unusual amongst those who enjoy material success but have to weigh it against a liberal mentality, these are people who operate in a culture that places a high symbolic value on privilege-checking (but not on suggesting actionable steps towards abolishing the structural mechanisms that cause the disparities resulting in privilege). Within this moral-political framework, Juan has no choice but to be a little hard on himself, since he is, of course, privileged, and that makes him feel sad. The phrase we have for when this type of behaviour is exhibited is, ‘performative wokeness’.

So when professor Cruz castigates his own work here as maybe being boring or insignificant, is it because he really considers that there is nothing worthwhile for him to say about how he came to be producing this work of art? No, more likely he says these things because he is practised in using irony to veil his own ignorance. Without thoroughly understanding the mechanisms of class exploitation in capitalism, people like Juan are left to wonder in abstract terms of identity about why minority voices keep denigrating their ‘priviliged’ opinions, and in so defending themselves, fall back often onto a comfortable mattress of cynically reasoned irony.

And so, the reputable Dean of Arts and Humanities at the Royal College of Art has become intellectually complacent, to combat this he has taken himself for a jog.

There is something particularly grotesque about the use of the word ‘precarity’ in IDKWIDBITVH, which is deployed to describe a “quality” in the work, and also the identity of its producer. The fact that the term is used here, by this wealthy university administrator in an attempt to aesthetize his mental detritus, is disgusting and in a more tolerable world, would result in his being sacked. It should be unambiguously stated that precarity is something experienced by those who regularly work in low paying jobs, and to whom cuts in social welfare provisions and public services present a real and existential threat. Mr Cruz claims that his work is “funny”, and maybe this disproportionality is what he finds so amusing, maybe it prompts him to laugh – a little gurgle like that emitted by water swilling round the hollows of a rotten piece of driftwood.

But perhaps this last suggestion plays too much of the man and not enough of the ball. If I don’t know what I’m doing but I’m trying very hard – the artwork shown at Matt’s Gallery in Bermondsey, reveals a particular correlation of individual reputation, institutional identity, and quality of life, then maybe a more general conclusion can be made from this. The video piece and its showing, effects to demonstrate that using institutional authority as a substitute for personality is rewarded as a social behaviour. 

After all, it seems unlikely that many people would be in a position to have their own half-hour long note-to-self broadcast in a publicly subsidised gallery if not for a network of credibility-enhancing signifiers that can be identified with the name. This kind of institutional accreditation is what passes for success in the eyes of those who seek to increase their own reputation through the same network of institutions. The problem for Juan Cruz is that he has been hawkishly playing this game for so long that he has now ended up well-placed within the network’s upper echelons, and so, with fewer places left to inspire his trajectory, he has distractedly turned his gaze inwards, only to discover a terrible lack – life beyond his reputation in capitalism. Perhaps this is why, when the subject of this work talks about his life, he speaks of it in terms of shame and an overall dissatisfaction. 

Juan Cruz a brand ambassador to self-pitying bourgeois malaise, and I would say he is representing that pretty well.