Gregory Sholette interview with M. Katritsis, Y. Ktenas, D. Haliasos for Kaboom magazine for politics, philosophy, psychoanalysis and art.
GS: Thank you for these questions M. Katritsis, Y. Ktenas, D. Haliasos. First off, my primary reference regarding the use of the word delirium in the title and chapters of the new book is to the following pithy citation written just after the 2008 financial meltdown by the late, brilliant British theorist Mark Fisher:
“To a degree unprecedented in any other social system, capitalism both feeds on and reproduces the moods of populations. Without delirium and confidence, capital could not function.”
Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009)
Or as the theorist Kim Charnley who edited my new book adds in his introduction:
“The art system, bloated by finance capital, has become delirious and cynically disenchanted. Art has been insulated against the crisis tendencies of neoliberal capitalism but also restructured to serve the interests of finance capital. After 2008, the art market showed itself to be immune to financial collapse, not least because it became a useful place to hedge investments, using the money pumped into the system by “quantative easing.”
Please be aware however, that I place the word delirium in close proximity to the word resistance in the book title in order to highlight both the connectivity and tension between these two terms. Much has happened since 2008, including as you know all too well the austerity measures and debt spiral that one could only describe as delirious. Most recently, following Brexit and the 2016 US, we also witness a feverish global upsurge of nationalist populism and xenophobia. Now the delirium and the crisis of neoliberal capitalism has spread into the realm of liberal democracy. And this condition has also begun to infect the world of art and culture. While capitalist crisis does not begin within art, art reflects and amplifies its effects. As I and Kim Charnley also insist: this combination of deliria, crisis and resistance generate not only negative, but a few positive outcomes, some of which are explored in the book, which I note is primarily focused on the situation in New York City over the past four decades because this is the place and the politics I know best. If these conditions of delirium and resistance, of gentrification and hyper-gentrification, and of what I call “Bare Art” and the “Dark Matter” of the art world also relate to conditions here in Greece than this is all for the better. You will need to decide that possible end result yourselves however.
Q: Your approach to art refers not only to artists and works of art, but also to the social institutions through which the art is presented, such as museums and galleries. Do you mind telling us some things about the way capitalism affects these institutions? Furthermore, do you think it is acceptable for an activist artist to use the tools that capitalistic or politically hostile institutions can provide in order to achieve that his radical artistic message will be reaching and perhaps affecting more people?
GS: A great set of questions, but first I think it is important to note that in the US context most major art institutions are not supported primarily by the state but by private interests including foundations, wealthy donors, and of course business corporations. The smallest portion of income for a place like the Museum of Modern Art or the Guggenheim comes from federal or municipal money or tax breaks for their collections. So this highly privatized high art world cannot be separated from the apparatus of capitalism to the degree you might be able to do it here in Greece or other parts of Europe. Though I suspect this is changing as well because as the fiscal crisis continues to fester there will be increasing pressure on privatizing culture, which in the US and UK began with “public/private” partnerships during the introduction of deregulated neoliberal policies in the 1980s.
This means that in reference to your second question about activists using or leveraging the cultural and financial capital of such major art institutions it is for us in the United States at least, a lived reality that is all but impossible to completely avoid. Asymmetry of power is also part of that reality when we engage the mainstream art world as a type of dark matter or archival surplus operating with what James C. Scott describes as the “weapons of the weak.” That does not mean we are helpless. On the contrary, activists can easily project a very large shadow onto the institution by knowing how, when and where to engage. Global Ultra Luxury Faction (GULF), Occupy Museums, Decolonize this Place, Liberate Tate, all of these recent agents of direct cultural protest intervention operating within mainstream art establishment institutions have been highly effective getting their message across using spectacular tactics that the art world and general news media gobbles up. But there is more to this activism, because their actual, real-time interruptions of the business-as-usual art world generates a condition for those present –both activists and bystanders alike– a significant liberatory moment, however fleeting, that is nonetheless like a kind of action-object, which immediately speaks to a widespread desire to realize not only another art world, but also another world in which our lives and our future are not subsumed by capital or by state institutions. (This is also why in the ultra-deregulated economy of the US we find artists generating ersatz institutions or what I call “mockstitutions” that imitate the function of a now almost completely decayed social institutional realm, but as artificial works of art that, ironically, often function better than the institutions they are seeking to mockingly imitate! For more on this please see from my last book Dark Matter.
Q: In this context, what could we think of the street art? Is it a way to challenge the instituted boundaries between the public and the private sphere? (In the sense that the private work of art is exposed to the public view, perhaps even through the use of private property – a painted wall, for example.
GS: I think you might be able to extrapolate from the comments I made above about activist and interventionist art to the question of street art, but with this important caveat: work made in and for the street is only as good –politically speaking– as the street is itself as a space of action and critical reflection in the first place. Because art cannot by itself transform delirium into resistance, not without the nearby proximity of collective political praxis and social organizing.
Q: How can a radical artist protect his art from becoming superficial and void of meaning in his attempt to deliver a political message? We have seen that many artists have visited and are staying in Athens during this time of political and economic crisis, wanting to “capture the moment” and find inspiration. Can it degrade into a type of safari to see the wildlife or can it offer true and sincere art from an indeed needed exterior and different point of view? Jacques Ranciere, in his recent visit to Athens, highlighted the turn of contemporary artists towards tribalism, anthropology, rituals etc. How would you comment this movement? Is it perhaps an effort to re-instill some "meaning" in a disenchanted world?
GS: One task of social movements might be to educate artists as well as curators and other art world professionals about the actuality of conditions “on the ground” so to speak. This will never in itself eradicate the tendency towards superficiality or the production of a “zoo” in which strange species are put on display. We know the history of art and of cultural spectacle is built on precisely these acts of seeing, or as my friend the theorist Nicholas Mirzoeff puts it, who has the “right to look.” Clearly this is ultimately about the anthropological spectator: the one who has the political power to detach himself (usually male) from life in order to reflect on it from a space of dispassionate reason. I think we know the whole narrative about this type of aesthetic detachment by now. However, just as with all of the activists I discuss above and in the book, leveraging the position of weakness is not impossible, even if limited perhaps and tactical. That is why having a strategy to place these interventions and “inversions” of this gaze within as a political praxis is very important.
For me, therefore, the re-enchantment of a lost world does not begin, or does not remain with individual artistic actions or small tribal gatherings and practices no matter how imaginative or clever, but it appears with demands for another art world, one that is a non-elitist and democratic that emerges from within what I call the shadow or surplus archive of a vibrant dark matter imaginary. Any possibility of a future public must recognize the relevance of this vital non-presence to present cultural and political circumstances as well as to that horizon of hope, which has yet to come.
Thank you so much for your time!