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Where everyone is fighting for attention

Artist at work
Forfatter: Bojana Kunst
Forlag: Information forlag (København)
subjects / How should art stand out in a time when artistic work has come to resemble modern working life with its constant demands for communication, networking and visibility? Appearance and staging have become more important than content. Can we today actually rediscover our relationship with time, the experience of duration, practice doing less? Not being a means to an end?


«Is our time's constant demand for a politicization of art – the holding of forums and conferences where politicization is discussed – a sign of what Slavoj Žižek calls 'pseudoactivity'? Is today's art not deeply rooted in the expert management of societal interests as a method and even part of our contemporary acute need for ceaseless activity? Take action, be active, participate, always be ready to oppose, generate new ideas, be aware of the context while constantly reflecting on your production methods …”

It has become increasingly difficult to distinguish the artwork from the communication that surrounds it.

That's what Bojana Kunst asks in her book Artist at work. The fact that contemporary art and its practitioners have come to resemble modern working life with the unstoppable demand to be productive, to lead oneself, to make oneself visible, probably does not seem particularly alarming to most people anymore. Because in a knowledge society where language, communication, thought and advice are at the center of production, it is not surprising that this also applies to art. Publishers, galleries, performing artists and the culture industry as a whole are experiencing how it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between the artwork and the communication that surrounds it.

But the disturbing thing is that we don't actually notice the brutal exploitation of the artists and the artistic work with all that it implies of an ever greater uniformity of art and the loss of a critical public. Everywhere you want art to throw a little glaze over the event, the opening of a restaurant or a festival, while you eat the artist off with a bottle of red wine as payment or a book. We don't notice it because we ourselves are the center of our own production: «Subjectivity today lies at the core of production methods and work processes.»

Art has always been associated with something that points beyond man, something healing, something transcending, something incomprehensible. Now art merges with man and his constructions and it becomes difficult to even talk about a concept of art – what art is. But who infects whom? Is it art that has come to look like modern work? Or is it everything else that has become like art, that modern organizations now act with art as the norm – the employee must be creative, playful, authentic etc. Appearance and staging have become more important than content. It has become difficult to talk about art, that which paves the way for a different experience. Remains artone in the middle of a working life culture where everyone is fighting for attention, for the fight to make something happen. The result is the accumulation of pseudo-activities which, in many places, suck the life out of a creative work – an accumulation which is linked to the idolization of community formation, meeting culture and a social tyranny. Meeting culture has become a fetish, as she writes. «Meetings are something that makes life impossible», as she quotes Giorgio Agamben.

Subjectivity production

A special power and authority characterizes capitalism and the economy today, where you have to invest in yourself, your future, your projects, your project life. What the individual must produce above all else in order to assert himself the knowledge society is precisely subjectivity. In a society where no one can really say anymore what it means to produce something of value (writing, advice, communication), you have to practice more and more this production of subjectivity – i.e. to sell himself and his relationships.

Everyone plays their own game and hopes for the best.

More important than the work and the critical thinking of art, it has become to be skilled at documenting and orchestrating a project life, an authorship, one's genre, subject, one's practice. Subjectivity is in crisis, but it seems as if we have no countermovement. The different branches of art cultivate the success of the individual writer, the one, as in the world of sports. Today, the author and other artists stand alone with their criticism of the day laborer-like working conditions, the formation of monopolies by large publishers, procurement policy etc. No common ground or common critical front. Everyone plays their own game and hopes for the best. One is knocked into place in the neoliberal social machinery. We have ended up in a situation where, as she writes: «The crisis of subjectivity has lost its liberating potential, which it had in the artistic practice of the 1960s and 1970s.»

Confession culture

But why don't we see and feel it? She explains it with French Michel Foucault and the self-control and self-management of the increasing confessional culture: confessionn has become our age's technique for the production of truth. One confesses oneself, one's passions, interests, relationships, fame, illnesses, miseries, one's love, one's sins. The problem is that this whole technique of self-management has become part of the way power works. As she writes: "Today, the need and obligation to confess is internalized to such an extent that we no longer feel that we are influenced by a power structure. It does not feel like an effect due to an external domination over us.» Subjectivity is in crisis, but you cannot create space to process your own experiences. Capital's demand to be active, produce and collaborate ends up being a "coercive measure and a cover for the fact that we no longer have any time at all."

Bojana Art

But how to get out of this prison? How does art reclaim its critical power? The answer has to do with time, with our way of living in relation to time. Our way of moving. A different time than the linear time, the measured time, the busy time, a slower time, a discovery of duration.

Bojana Art sees dancing as a way of creating resistance, that which opens up a glimpse of permanence. Unlike Fordism's mechanization of the industrial worker's body and automation, dance's potential and enjoyment begins with everyday life's ability to create changes in the ways in which movement can create "qualitative disturbances", "changes in the forces of life" and a "temporal dynamism". It's about slowing down movement, sinking into the fabric, working with a material, with the time it takes. And it is about creating a distance from goal-directed work. In the Occupy movement, for example, people went from disembodied networks to local connected forms of temporal persistence and endurance in specific places. Art calls it a «duration-oriented search for new political embodiments.»

The Danish Laboratories for Ecology and Aesthetics# which is mentioned in the afterword, describes itself as a soft resistance practice concerned with observing nature and the slow organic ways of the smallest organisms to produce surprising new life.

The Danish Laboratory for Ecology and Aesthetics. Photo: David Stjernholm

To bear the brevity of life

«People need to have a sense of slowness, because it is the only way we can distinguish between desirable and possible changes», writes Kunst. Time is not a project that must be realized all the time. Rather, time itself consists of obstacles, deflections, involuntary movements, imperceptible displacements, an actual slowness, where the flow of time simply disappears. She quotes the German philosopher Odo Marquard who writes that «every human life is basically slow, compared to death.» By training ourselves in this, we become better able to bear that human life is short compared to the world around us.

When Bojana Art describes the dance as a real work and not as an imitation of the production work, it is precisely connected with the fact that the dance creates its own time and space – it transforms the material into movement. It negates the given and creates something new. The actual task of art. Those who work with dance and study the body speak of us living in a time when the body has lost grace, lightness, beauty and thus its own temporal fullness – 'The Fall from Grace'. Today we have a trained and tamed body that does not radiate grace. The body disappears in favor of the head, at the same time as it is exhibited and perfected as an object.

The art of doing less…

I agree with this author that the historical conditions for artistic work have changed, that art more and more resembles the rest of working life and the brutal market conditions, but it is also a limitation if you believe that capitalism and power can explain all actions and opportunities. That is why the last part of the book on the art of making it less is crucially important.

Incidentally, it could have been written as a poem: To show the connection between artistic work and the way of living. Practice living in a way that promotes wonder, non-useful activity, boredom, laziness, slowness. Today we learn to see people as an infinite potential that can and must be realized through constant productivity. What we sacrifice is not potential, but impotentials, our ability to not to be (Agamben). To not be a means to an end. To not have to be this or that, but open, wondering, searching. To be alive is to find space for the meaningless, for the useless, the wonder, the mere being, the unproductive, the slowness, the sleep.

As Peter Laugesen wrote in his memorial words for poet colleague Henrik Nordbrandt who died the other day: "Absolutely nothing happens in the poems, but that nothingness is everything."

Alexander Carnera
Alexander Carnera
Carnera is a freelance writer living in Copenhagen.

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