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:
At least I’m not waving a wee EU/British flag about it.
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 mainstreaminternationalrecognition fromliberal andconservativemedia 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 ofCupcake 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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
‘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.
Whilst searching through NotesToStrangers’ content on various platforms for information about Leek’s process, it transpired that Andy Leak
Report from a performance in Liverpool city centre on April 13th, 2018
One Friday afternoon in Liverpool, prepared with a cover letter and c.v. [DOWNLOAD IT HERE], I expressed a reluctant wish to join in the ranks of the employed. So I stood, beneath a sign, like some mystery prize latched onto the end of a stick at a fun fair, or a worm on the end of a hook. Dressed to medium/low-professional standard, weary in duty but hopeful, at the service of potential employers.
If I’d really been looking for work, it would’ve been dead embarrassing, because people were laughing and taking pictures.
To be fair, it’s hard to imagine that anyone ever feels good about publically advertising their own unemployment. It’s just a bit degrading, isn’t it? Subordinating yourself like that to the judgement of total strangers, but we’ve pretty much all been there in one way or another, haven’t we?
‘I need one of those signs.’ Exclaimed a young woman to her friend as they walked on by.
It didn’t take long for someone to take offence. A man in a sleeping bag down by an empty shop doorway had called me over to chat. We’d been talking for around a minute when he began swearing at someone who’d started filming the two of us. As he covered his face, I approached the amateur filmmaker and asked if he’d stop filming the man in the doorway, who clearly didn’t want to be in some stranger’s video.
The cameraman turned accusingly, quickly said it was me he was filming, and asked what I was doing. ‘I’m looking for a job.’ I said. ‘Do you know anyone who’s an employer?’
He kept the camera running and started to talk about some of Liverpool’s difficulties with employment. We agreed that automation was a factor in the decrease of jobs, and that more needed to be done in the way of replacing that work with more socially useful labour. I gave him a copy of my cover letter, which he read, smiled, and so became immediately less suspicious of my motives.
As we shared perspectives, a bloke with an umbrella clocked the sign and approached to ask what kind of work I was looking for. Something that pays well and makes me feel like I’m contributing positively to society, I told him. He returned with a sidelong glance and assured me that most work is menial and badly paid.
Jobseekers can’t afford to be choosers, he said. Though at this, my cameraman friend jumped in to argue that this really shouldn’t be the case, and so began a lengthy disagreement between the two men as I watched, trying not to get in the way.
Twenty minutes passed, and a small congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses began to look sympathetically in my direction.
After we agreed that it was important not to give up on dreams (socialism for me and the cameraman, playing guitar like James Taylor for the umbrella bloke), I was back to standing around with my sign and false applications.
A few people stopped by to congratulate me on my job-seeking initiative, and mentioned that even though they couldn’t help me in any other capacity, they were just pleased to see someone ‘really making the effort to get out there and look for work’.
At this point I feel obliged to mention that one such person was moved to the point of pushing a £20 note into my hand. I hadn’t prepared for this kind of ethical dilemma and was forced to quickly size up the stranger’s moral stance. Here was someone who was glad to offer considerable charity to another person who appeared down-on-his-luck, but in this case only on the condition that they were looking for a job and making a considerable tit out of themselves in doing so.
I took his money and possibly winced a little as he began to read the cover letter, his face turning a slightly angrier shade of red with each sentence. How could he have just given twenty quid over to someone so evidently hopeless when at writing a decent job application?
He might not have had all that much himself, but I figured that since he was out there to reward The Enterprising Spirit, my bit of on-the-spot business acumen would ultimately be to his pleasure.
Eventually I was approached by a man with an actual proper job offer. He was a manager at an accountancy firm, told me that he liked my idea, and would get back in touch. On his way he went with an unread copy of my cover letter, but five minutes later, he was back with some useful advice.
‘Look, I like your idea, but I see that first line and think, I’m not even gonna read the rest of it’, he said.
I asked him if he would read a bit more anyway to help get a better idea of what I was really about, and so he kindly did, before going on to explain to me in exasperating tones over the course of about 15 minutes all the various reasons why having ‘I do not really want to work for you’ is not a very good way to begin a cover letter.
I’ll admit I egged him on a bit, taking time to slowly consider and accept each of his bloviating amendments (‘there you should write, ‘because I am an enthusiastic I will provide a benefit for your company’’ etc.). But he continued to despair at my not-quite-understanding act.
I didn’t want to let him go, possibly out of some slightly sadistic kick I was getting out of this whilst thinking of all the failed job applications I’ve written for employers who didn’t bother to reply, or the times I’d been made to wait at desks for managers to appear with shaking heads and no job opportunity. We painstakingly concluded that I should follow his instructions and at the very least change the opening line to read, ‘I do really want to work for you’, and so he left again, this time shaking his head.
Fair play, I thought, he was the boss after all.
Then the inevitable happened: some teenage schoolboys saw my sign and one of them asked if I’d ‘do blow jobs’. Amateurishly caught off-guard here, all I could think to call back was, ‘disgusting’. But, obviously, this only heightened the lads’ enjoyment of the original remark. I’d have been thoroughly seen off here if not for the quick retort of a nearby adult on her cig break, who spoke kindly on my behalf to say that ‘they probably don’t even know what one is’.
That was mostly it for fun and games. If you haven’t read my application yet, I’d kindly ask that you’d give it a look over before reading on.
Throughout the day I received quite a few sincere offers for help in finding work, and these were the most difficult interactions. I didn’t want to waste the time of anyone who meant well, but who hadn’t quite understood on account of having offered support without reading my application texts.
Job openings were supposedly made available to me in café’s, restaurants, insurance sales, drug dealing, bars, and a community litter picking project. In return all I could offer was my heartfelt thanks.
That evening I performed the work again as part of FACT Gallery’s 15th anniversary event. Within the gallery space, it was more obvious that I was ‘doing art’, and so things were not as eventful as they’d been outside. (Apart from one instance when I was offered a very dodgy-sounding job tarmacking drives at the going rate of fifty quid a day – well done to FACT for getting a self-identified gypsy through the doors though, it’ll reflect well in the engagement survey).
I gave away more c.v.’s, and wondered if maybe someone might offer me a paid job in the arts – but having spoken to some of the unpaid volunteers who were helping out on the night, this did not seem that likely. Still though, I suppose it doesn’t hurt to hope.
But hope alone won’t fix things for most of us.
The rituals we put ourselves through for employment are absurd. Most of us write job applications and apply for work without really articulating what we actually want. And yet it seems like the most normal thing in the world to do.
I’d wager that this is because capitalism, according to Karl Marx, can only operate through its dependence on ‘a mass of human material always ready for exploitation’. That is, the ‘reserve army’, or, a pool of unemployed people who will always be ready to compete for jobs. You know what it’s like.
This predicament instills a sense of unease within the labour market, as those in work can always be threatened with the uncertain future of unemployment if they start putting in requests that make the boss feel uncomfortable.
Wages can be kept low and working conditions unfavourable, because for those of us in work, there’s always the fear of being dumped back into the unemployment pool (which was designed to have high walls and not enough ladders for everyone to climb out – also capitalists want to take the chlorine away). The upshot of all this, is that making demands on employers carries with it a certain level of personal risk. That’s why, if we want to change the employment regime in a way that makes it less absurd and unfair, then we need to take collective action. Forming inclusive worker’s support groups is a good way of doing this.
To clarify, when people asked what sort of work I was looking for, my answer was ‘fulfilling and well paid work that makes me feel like I can be serving society in a genuinely helpful way’. I told them I wanted ‘sick pay, holiday pay, regular working hours and union representation’. And most people agreed that these were good things. But because of how competition and the ‘reserve army’ are built into the structure of capitalism, making those requests seemed incompatible with the task of actively seeking work. I suppose that’s why my response appeared as fiction.
Though wouldn’t it be nice if that fiction could become a bit more like real life.
Just over a year ago, I encountered a transmission. It was a cross between a mindfulness mp3 and a public information broadcast. It was a life-changing ordeal. If you aren’t interested in that, then you can skip directly to the foot of this post and listen without any of the context: a scoundrel’s bargain. If, however, this is not for you, then please, read on.
Last year, a device I didn’t recognise connected to the bluetooth speaker I was sitting next to. It started playing some very ambient sounds, like patchouli scented wallpaper, I distinctly remember thinking at the time. There was a warm, fuzzy edged nostalgia feeling to it, like sitting on carpet after a day of school in front of the television. It featured a softly spoken guiding voice, which would have had me transfixed, if it hadn’t been immediately apparent that my responsibility was to record and spread its message.
‘Aliens of Chill’, was its mantra… the words resonated with an uneasy significance, and yet I felt compelled to capture this unlikely event on my mobile phone. I believe that this technological behaviour may have protected me from experiencing potentially dangerous first-level exposure to the transmission’s strange, peaceful influence.
When the transmission ended, the urge to upload its content immediately was strong, but I knew that the recording was of insufficient quality to be believable. History is, after all, littered by cranks with their mesmerism acts and fuzzy Loch Ness Monster pictures, diverting folk down shady side streets where false hope threatens to bloom, and in which resides a terrible monster, far more real than anything secretly dredged out of a Scottish lake: the era of post-truth.
As I started to consider how the recorded material should best be repackaged for mainstream consumption, my principal mistake came in allowing it to be heard by scientific experts – a social group quite outside my target demographic of highly opinionated amateurs. To my shock and disappointment, they refused to verify any of the recording’s content, citing a pedantic ‘need for further analysis’. But by this point I had already forged well ahead with the work of unspooling the transmission’s intricate layers of meaning.
If the experts’ well-intentioned servility to rigorous standards of so-called method proved anything, it was as a hindrance to the investigative process.
I refused to be held back, but then, disaster struck. One evening, whilst driving my quad bike around the car park of an old people’s home, some burglars subjected my property to the needs of their economy. From tv to biscuit tin, they had taken it all. And after what felt like an age of desperate searching it became clear that my mobile device could not be found.
This meant that the Aliens of Chill transmission was now held exclusively by members of the expert community, since I had foolishly sent the files via bluetooth and had not remembered to back them up. Nobody I got in touch with again was willing to expend any more time thinking about whether or not they had knowledge of the recording, presumably on account of my problem’s failure to fit within their agreed upon model for setting the standards of altruistic practice – they effectively ignored the problem. When the courtesy of a reply was shown, it was only ever from the institutional contact addresses of laboratories and clinics, directing me to email other professional laboratories and clinics.
Case in point:
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It was no use, and as a last ditch attempt to retrieve my file, I contacted the local MP, via her Facebook page, and asked what kind of oversight is in place to rein in uncooperative experts operating freely and with rank impunity, only to be met by a barrage of sickening abuse from strangers whom this really needn’t have concerned. Risible acts of chicanery thwarted me at every turn, promising avenues evaporated, fakers, moonlighters, and japesters sent me falsely-titled recordings of insipid BBC Radio 6 broadcasts edited in such a way as to exaggerate their conceptual lacunae, I was sent numerous essays on the sexual import of baggage carousels, I fell victim to knock-a-door run pranks, and all this to the effect of filling my mind with detrimental junk, vulgar distractions from the task of understanding and sharing the counter-scientific vagaries of a shaman from space.
Of course, at the time I had also been working on an important sociological treatise regarding the ‘Bullshit-Pisstake Dyadic Paradigm‘,which I expected the various authorities to treat with their usual silence ortactical flippancy(not the pinball strategy) upon (self-)publication. It would probably have been a far more valuable piece of work than this will ever be. Nevertheless, since I had now decided to derail this particular study, I was free to use every moment of spare time I had in trying to wind up the maddening thematic coils that had left their tangled traces in personal memory. But in order to resist full absorption into the transmission’s worldview, it was necessary to uphold a healthy, distant, critical attitude.
This distancing effect was not achieved. The phrase, ‘being in over one’s head’ has surely never seemed so applicable, only in this particular usage, ‘one’ refers to the notion of ‘truth’.
If there has ever been a time in which the truth wasn’t controversial, humanity is yet to hear of it. Paradoxically, though, truth is supposed to be uncontroversial, as if it stands unshakeably above or outside of history. Controversy concerning truth would only arise out of its rejection by the ignorant. Except, in an era that reckons itself to have gone beyond truth, there would appear nothing left to do except muddle.
Does the proper response to a crisis of authority lie in the hyperbolic simulation of its symptoms? Does beauty justify chaos?
Though it cannot be said with absolute authority, I would guess that the sounds emitted from the bluetooth enabled speaker that day were part of an apocalypse-themed meditation tape.
(n.b. I don’t know if aliens have any concept of the wage, but to think that someone got paid for that broadcast is truly out-of-this-world. Whilst being paid to spread misinformation is a very normal human practice, being motivated by any other reason seems deeply illogical, so we can only assume that someone was paying the alien money. Conspiracy theorists, get your pencils at the ready! Marxist materialists, ditto! Journalists, choose a side!)
Certainly, this will seem unlikely to many who take issue with the general plausibility of basically apolitical warnings about ecological disaster and throwaway jibes about how the future has been cancelled. (Don’t worry, it hasn’t.) But is it really so unreasonable to consider that there are beings beyond Earth’s orbit, probably, who seek to escape their own problems through imagining the many ways in which our planet might be fucked?
Taken at face value, the recording is filled with inaccurate facts. But could it be that the Aliens of Chill broadcast was intended for consumption by people on this planet to reveal a different kind of truth, one that perhaps pertains to the limits of understanding shifts in culture without having learned a properly scientific understanding of history? (No.)
Having recollected as much of this alien broadcast as possible, it is now available for interested parties to read the transcript HERE
Further to this, a reproduction of the transmission has also been created using pirated DJ software and a microphone. I have attempted to recreate the vocals as best possible using reverb effects, but it should be made clear: any mistakes that serve to cover up the realism that lies are the heart of this work reflect my own technical failures rather than those of the original transmitter.
As an expansion of Harry G. Frankfurt’s insubstantial thesis that ‘sincerity itself is bullshit’, (See: Frankfurt, On Bullshit, Princeton Press, 2005), the Bullshit-Pisstake Dyadic Paradigm was a conceptual horse vault intended to reveal the dialectic relationship between pisstaking and bullshitting to create a revolutionary theory of jestership. This attempt itself proved insubstantial, and was inadvisedly revealed to Surkovian artists, who are clearly now using it to terrorise soft-headed Western journalists.
If the truth is only ever transitory, drifting from claim to claim, incapable of settling in one spot for ever much longer than the blink of an eye, then it perhaps becomes necessary for its makers to force it into chosen sides. Rather than embracing the absolute unknowability of truth and splashing around in it like a puddle in a playground, truth should be given a direction in line with certain historical tendencies. This is not truth as a magical number god, or as any inhuman force with an independent will of its own, but truth as submerged in and shaped by the world of social relations, a truth that changes in accordance with how humans fight to fulfil their needs.
Or at least, it’s what I have retroactively decided to think of as a holiday. There’s an essay in Roland Barthes’ Mythologies that goes off on one about writers not being able to detach themselves from the work they do. How a temporary relocation offers new experiences that can be worked on as material in the formation of a text, along with access to different mental states precipitated by a change in working environment. But it’s a holiday, so stop thinking about work.
But work happens on holiday, and it is worth thinking about. Barthes’s proposition that ‘the writer’ is somehow different in essence from other types of worker, is based on a simple observation that writers are not restricted to work particular hours in the week. Nobody gets to choose precisely when to have an idea, and since coming up with ideas is pretty fundamental to the work of writers, they can’t have full control over when to stop and start – it’s part of the job. But other types of worker don’t get to have full control over when they get to stop and start work either, since their hours are dictated by a boss.
This writer referred to in Barthes’ essay is the idealised figure of a self-directing adventurer, liberated from the need to follow other people’s rules, autonomously working through writing towards some higher purpose, of say, perhaps, self-transformation. Which is all sweet and dandy until time comes to pay for the cost of living. For as Walter Benjamin points out in his essay The Author as Producer, when it comes to making a living from creative activity, the writer is revealed to be nothing so much as a producer of capital, a worker, same as most.
So whether on holiday or not, hours have to be put in to make a product to sell. The writer or artist is their own boss inasmuch as they choose what to produce, and can’t really fire themselves for working erratically. But unless they can coast comfortably on money derived from elsewhere (inheritance or savings from another job, for example), certain productivity targets do have to be met in order to satisfy the material needs of the writer, and the professional needs of those who oversee the work’s wider production and distribution in one form or another. The demands of capital prevent even the ‘creative professional’ from using their labour time in a way that belongs entirely to themselves.
Relatedly, taking holiday photographs and writing status updates for social media is a kind of labour that’s enjoyable precisely because it is self-transformational before anything else. We don’t spend time and effort producing our pictures and texts for profit, we do it for reasons that are particular to us. If we extend Barthes’ category, ‘writer’, in line with the more up-to-date term, ‘content producer’, which many of us seem to be, then it might become apparent enough that engaging in this relatively unproductive (i.e. not profit generating) labour whilst on holiday has the potential to effect processes of self-transformation outside of capitalist production.☨
To be ‘on holiday’ then, is to be in a position where you are allowed to do something primarily for your own interests, and to think of this as a kind of labour is helpful because it challenges the capitalist common sense definition of work, which always implies the production of profit, as opposed to the production of a more tolerable society.
What Barthes said of the writer is true for most of us, a holiday isn’t an escape from work; it’s a change in the type of work we do, defined in terms of who and what we’re working for.
The reason I mention all this is because I’ve been on holiday in Liverpool for a week with some university friends to participate in the Independent Biennale. It was quite a self-indulgent experience in terms of doing unprofitable things for my own self-transformation rather than any sort of socially useful project. But I’m not gonna beat myself up about it, and I did get a mention in this write up, which is good for me at least.
The .gif up top was taken (do you ‘take’ a .gif?) by Iva Yos, of me at Formby Beach – one of the North West’s most beautiful bits and one of the last few places in the UK that still has red squirrels – a great environment for socialist holiday makers.
Finally, whilst on this holiday, I unfortunately mislabelled one of the people I was travelling with as a ‘bourgeois fascist’. For this, I apologise, and would like to offer the corrective that he’s actually a sexist bourgeois fascist. (Bit of background: he makes vapid art about Donald Trump, bums off algorithms, and sucks up relentlessly to university management.) Although he shouldn’t be (-and thankfully, isn’t) taken seriously by anyone with any intellectual credibility, serious work is required for dissecting and criticising the very suspect ideological currents that are floating this toxic shit round art departments at the moment. Check out the first footnote in this Jeremy Gilbert text for more details on what that is.
☨Not wanting to get too carried away with the optimism of self-transformation here, it is useful to note, as Tithi Bhattacharya does, that this process alone doesn’t take us outside of capital’s chain of incessant profit accumulation, since it contributes to the reproduction of labour power needed by capitalists for maintaining their system.
Not the pictorial representation representation I’m looking for, but it’s quite a nice wooden ship.
[Here is space for you to forget about that ship.]
A vast ship manoeuvres through shifting tides and currents, once guided by stars, its crew held in the belief that, sometime, it might steer smoothly from the indistinguishable darkness of churning black into static space, the calm between points of light in the sky. Now though, blinking colours emit from diodes, displaying constellations that hold less mystery than before. Yet still, a technologically baffling ‘Global Positioning System’ ensures that a steady stream of information keeps its crew aware of their position. The great ship ferries around in, what might appear to be, a depressing, circular dally, but since everyone over the age of 18 gets to be captain, it would make sense that no clear, unified direction has ever quite managed to materialize fully. Which isn’t the end of the world, given that it’s supposed to be a pleasure cruise.
It was built over hundreds of years, and everyone whoever got aboard has contributed to its building, running, and general maintenance. Now the place is a living, thriving, community with all sorts of services and entertainments to offer. There are nurseries and bandstands, libraries and cinemas, for a brief though ill-fated time there was even a roller disco. Thankfully, there were also hospitals.
Not everyone used what was provided, and it was a bit of a sod to run, but the main thing that everyone seemed to hold in common was a shared interest in not letting the ship sink.
Yes. The CitizenShip had for long been a hardy behemoth. But many who had been afloat in it for decades now would grumble, like intermittent drizzle, of how things weren’t as they’d once been. And it was true, their ship now crested with increasing precarity over international waves, of crime.
The place was an absolute state, showing signs of deterioration. Not least of all in the Ship’s Hull, despite recent additions of large scale, hi-res photos of softly lit sea bass with chives and a garlic butter sauce, braceleted ladies cutting fine figures with face tones to compliment chromium-brown, sedative backdrops, with slogans like, ‘History in the making’, and, ‘Coming Soon’ in dignified, white, italicized type. This is where holes had been developing.
Invitations into the spaces behind the images were limited, seeing as these private parts were tightly controlled by a resource hoarding conglomerate called the Conservatories, who inhabited a huge glass penthouse at the highest point on top deck. They believed that they had a right to own the CitizenShip. Even though that right was total fucking horse shit since the vessel had been built by everyone together. It was clearly unfair to sell chunks of the Ship off without the permission of its captains, but regardless of their approval in any case, it was especially unfair to sell it off to those without an interest in making sure the ship would not sink. But the Conservatories all had yachts.
By now, word had been circling that the Conservatories had been the group primarily responsible for the damp that was rising through the Ship, which was bad, because one of the last things that anyone ever wants to have in a ship is uninvited water. Especially when that water is full of crime. Anyway, as became apparent, the Conservatories had been acting out their secretive plan of drilling and progressively widening holes in the Ship for the past few decades. This was what was happening behind the giant images, and sub-aquatic mercenaries, missionaries, and militants had been learnt to catch this drift, so that upon finding the distressed Ship, they were well positioned to offer up their services to mend any problems from the outside. Through collaboration and exchange, the Conservatories were able to build more yachts and a stunningly obnoxious golf course.
Even though the hundreds of thousands of captains on board could have filled the holes themselves, bailed the water, and thrown everyone culpable overboard, that is not what happened. Instead, they took a gamble on the allure of an innovative solution suggested by the friendly outsiders. Unfortunately, the solution was made of mineral water, sand and cement, and pumped violently into the worst affected areas.
As such, a lot of people onboard began to question whether putting holes into the boat was the right thing to have done after all, and whether or not it would be good to continue doing it. The more of this solution there was, the quicker the Ship sank, and as things stood, greater numbers than ever were having to be employed in the solution reallocation sector, as a matter of urgency. A crisis was developing and every service had to do whatever they could to reallocate the solution.
The CitizenShip was on its way down now that many vital services were suffering from lack. Resources were primarily organised for the purpose of spreading the problem of solution from deck to deck. Yet this approach was presented as the only way to manage a fair and balanced descent into the ceaseless ocean of obliteration.
Rankled and perturbed, many onboard had trouble identifying the criminal outsiders. What exactly were these alien forces of the deep? Some suggested pirates, but this seemed wrong because they didn’t bring a decent illegal radio station with them. Others thought of them as cowboys, like the builder kind of cowboys who rip their customers off, such as those occasionally seen on the ship’s popular television programme, WatchSeadog. Yet this didn’t seem quite right either, as that sort of cowboy tends to be a ramshackle chancer with notably weak organizational skills. In the end, most people just stuck with ‘senior management’.
Meticulously planned devastation was the future proposed by the Conservatories. A strong and stable continuation of horror. And there was nothing anyone in the CitizenShip could do about it… Except perhaps the cabin boy.
Known affectionately to many onboard as simply ‘The Absolute Boy’, when called upon to do his duty, all aboard knew he would respond with a resounding, “yes mate!” and that with enough support he could take on the Outsiders and prevent the CitizenShip from being turned into a Citi-Tank.
The community of mates gathered, now pitted directly against the hoarding Conservatories. No more losses could be taken. The entire CitizenShip was on the precipice of great change, at last with a prospect of rocking the boat back towards safety.
After slowly coming to the realisation that I can choose to be represented by pretty much anything online (e.g. A bag of salad, a fuse box, a massive bin, any picture that it’s possible to get hold of, really), I have decided to become this hatstand.
So that we might understand the stand that the hat goes over so that it stands on the hatstand (or is it the stand that is standing and the hat that is sitting on the stand?) i.e. so that it can be possible to understand how the hatstand can be properly understood, it seems necessary to take a stand and aim some questions, not under, nor over, but directly at it. At the stand.
There are a great many beautiful things in this world. But as one of those, the hatstand is particularly outlandish in that, whilst being beautiful, yes, it is also quite useless given today’s (largely inexplicable) non-prevalence of hats.
Most hats are a bit useless too. Or at very least, most hat-wearing is useless. Fair enough, there are exceptions, but please allow me this generalization. Therefore, so mostly, is the hatstand. In full bloom, we might say that the hatstand is a useless adornment adorned by multiple useless adornments.
A notable exception
Whilst the hatstand may also bear an uncanny resemblance to some thin androgynous figure who flails, this is lazy anthropocentric thinking. The hatstand is allowed to be an entity entirely in its own right, is it not?
What would the hatstand say?
In an effort to find out more about hatstands, I conducted an interview with one that I found in an old antiques warehouse in Crystal Palace – you may visit it there too, if you like. It’s on Jasper Road.
–What is a hatstand?
A brusque retort to the common concern of not knowing quite where to put one’s hat.
–Do enough people wear hats these days to warrant the existence of hatstands?
An exposed head is all too easily lost without firm conviction of the hat’s elation, that such a thing might ever lay beneath an other, set aside from light itself, or someone else; in sheathing should it cease at last, then shame, surely, it must endure.
–Is that a doctrine of profligacy?
Not by today’s standards.
–Sorry if this is a touchy subject-
No, not at all.
—but have you ever considered yourself-
Naturally, though it is unhealthy to compare. Borne of beach, my family tree was littoral, yet some have been taken to believe that waves can be exclusive. Had they ever truly belonged to me at all, I would have gladly offered, but you like I am of the earth and they were never mine to give, the waves that is, so no. I am just here, to hold your hat.
The hatstand is a thousand times more glamorous than the coat hook. Is this what you mean to say?
Of course not, it is a million times more glamorous. Call that what you will.
–I’d better not. Now, it seems unlikely that the views expressed by one hatstand, i.e. you, would ever be representative of all hatstands, let alone maybe even a single other one. Is this a fact that you struggle to deal with, or do you simply dispute it outright?
No, you are right there, in a way, yes. But isn’t it the case that many suffer from what might be termed, life-induced psychological immobility?
No, that is a problem specifically related to iced goods.
Yes. But what is being said here is that it isn’t anybody’s place to tell people how life should be lived, given that all too often, it just can’t. As a hatstand, I feel no discomfort in making the fact clear.
–I’m sorry but that has not been made clear at all. Is there a fair comparison to be made here between a hatstand and a bottle rack? Is that fair?
The bottle rack and I would be willing to share a similarity so long as it were possible to split the difference between us, equally. My friend, Marcel, who is skeletal as us both would make a useful judge in this if only he weren’t so irrevocably, dead. But think: there are more uses in the human head than there are objects to be used, and integral to triangulate between the hat and I, from this it can be said, “what has the washed-up bottle ever had to do with where you put it?” Succinctly put, I love that nothing is useless, forever.
– It is difficult to think of anything as forever.How, hatstand, are you of your time?
When objects belonged to a belief that they could hold truth within themselves, we were blessed and felt no pressure to be anything aside from what we evidently were. They said it, so it was. But with rampant, unstoppable, proliferation of mirrors, how could any singular reflection ever be trusted again? New angles opened up; we couldn’t help but look and feel shock to see all things drained of brilliant colour. The hatstand is a relic of this dangerous illusion, which dazzled weaker souls, led them headstrong into terrible orgies of destruction. I am of a time that learned how in a world of underwhelming beauty, disappointment is your duty.
–I think I preferred your shorter answers.
Is that a question?
-No. You have given me enough information.
Are you going to buy me?
-No. You are useless.
All the more reason.
Now that many of us are in the habit of documenting our lives online, we no longer need to buy things in order to share in their allure. It is possible to take a photograph and have its object attached to ourselves. This is why I am a hatstand now – to suggest that the act of representation is more precious than the material object.
That is what can be learned from being a decadent hatstand.