In an article written in early 2012 for Frieze, Lars Bang Larsen wonders if the problem with social practice, or any art that bases itself in or on “the social,” as it were, is its contemporaneity. For Larsen, it is—or at least was, three years ago—the shifting identity of who and/or what constitutes society and sociality that robs art based in the social of its mooring in history. Although I am wary of mourning the loss of History, some kind of hegemonic accounting for time and/or quality that fluctuates along the same lines as the social, I understand Larsen’s worry in terms of horizontality. The social sphere “privileges space over time, presence over form,” Larsen writes: it is “a concept without speed and virtuality.” This can be seen in the mirrored intents of much socially-based art and much self-help or managerial-behavior advice as being in a, or the moment. When is the moment?
More insidiously, the understanding of the social of the 2010s—the contemporary of now, versus the contemporary of 1960 or 1850—is that of an abstract mass that can be easily atomized into other abstract masses and monetized. If presence is more important than form, if being there is more important than knowing why or in what capacity, one’s ability to look across one’s situation and analyze it is deeply compromised. If I believe it is more important to agree to my high-efficiency, assymetrical work schedule than to become agitated over the loss of my workday, a form that unions and activists have been fighting to define and hold for the last 150 years, then I have forfeited my right to live for anything other than profit margins and capital. When I agree to working from 12-9 on Monday, 9-6 on Tuesday, 4-12 on Thursday, and 8-5 Friday and Saturday, I am almost certainly not doing so because I actually believe that I will ever share in those profit margins or own for myself any of that capital, as such beliefs are increasingly ludicrous in times as inequal and undemocratic as our own. Rather, I am either agreeing out of total desperation or for the good of the team.
One of the defining characteristics of the social turn that art began to take in the 90s—and that it continues to take like endless donuts in a Walmart parking lot—is that is has been, and continues to be, mirrored by a social turn in workforce management. Just as artists detourned quotidien forms like dinners, drinking beer with friends, storefronts, etc into artworks, lifting the everday into rarified art worlds, so did workforce management detourn workers into quotidien forms like teams, squads, family, etc. If a workforce identifies as a team, then the members of the workforce identify as teammates, who are part of a larger team that is not like other teams, rather than as workers unified across a company or across an industry. The aestheticization of the workforce, which owes much to artists who aesthetize the everyday, makes structural problems vanish because the structure itself disappears. It is because of this reciprocity that the ever-present hangwringing over the actual political efficacy of much art that bases itself in, uses, or attempts to improve upon the social so often seems so silly.
“Back to the Future,” a recent exhibition co-organized by Mexico City residency program Casa Maauad and Denver residency initiative ArtPlant, speaks strongly of this ambivalence. The exhibition is dominated by gunmetal grays, while the repetitive yelling and smashing from Adán de la Garza’s video, giving myself a reason to scream but not cry (2015) in the space’s back corner permeates everything, nullifying its affective content and becoming just another domestic sound. Taken as a whole with its contents, exhibition’s title references more the endless tail-chasing of contemporaneity more than the 80s classic trilogy. Indeed, the show reads as if the title was decided upon before the work was made, and that, over their month of production, the artists involved—especially the three artists from Denver, Christina Battle, de la Garza, and Dmitri Obergfell—found their work gradually darkening.
The first work the viewer encounters is a video installation by Colombian-born artist Cristina Ochoa, who currently lives in Mexico City. What appears to be a video recording of a labor protest at a factory is projected onto a circle of glass shards. The shards, in turn, reflect their image back onto the wall below and beside the projector, a ghostly and compelling abstraction that shifts according to its parent image. It is difficult to tell which image is meant to be seen or if they are meant to be taken together. Taken together, however, the sharded video and its reflection present beautifully the process of workforce aestheticization, where political agency washes out into innocuous abstraction.
Dmitri Obergfell’s Statues Also Die (2015), a set of three Malverde busts with their scalps blown off into graphite gore behind, dominates the next room. Jesús Malverde, along with Santa Muerte, is a revered semi-mythological figure among Mexico’s disenfranchised poor and narcos, who are often from the same place and whose deaths are often vicious. Indeed, the cycle of narco-violence is almost entirely contained to the massive population of desperately poor in Mexico, abandoned by Mexico’s 200-year old caste system and ground into dust by Mexico’s wholehearted embrace of neoliberalism. It is from these people, whose lives are condemned to endless days minimum wage labor at MX$50 (a little over US$3) per day—regardless of how long that day is—that new recruits for organizations like the Sinoloa cartel, whose leader, El Chapo, escaped in ridiculous and elaborate form from a maximum security prison over the weekend. It is also these people that are mercilessly slaughtered and dumped as warnings by the Zetas, an organization that rivals ISIS in its ghastly combination of wild brutality and social media savvy; or by the mayor of Iguala and his wife earlier this year for threatening to mar a party, such as the 43 students who were murdered earlier this year. Malverde and Santa Muerte are revered, that is, by those whose lives have always already been lost, who were robbed of hope the second they were born. It seems a bit beside the point then, and resolutely spectacularly American, to blow his scalp off, as removing the idol of a culture does nothing to remove the structural problems that make that culture possible. However, each Malverde carries a name, the name of a local artisan who assisted Obergfell in creating the busts: Anuar, Mauricio, and Tony. Perhaps this gesture, which lifts these workers into a discussion that usually ignores them, adds a mournful generosity to the piece, an acknowledgement of those who work and die with nothing, for nothing.
The ambivalence that permeates the show emanates from Battle’s and de la Garza’s work. The two Denver artists, born in Edmonton and Tucson, respectively, consistently address or interact with the social in their work. Both of their past work is tinged or strongly influenced by humor, whimsy, or play, such as de la Garza’s surveillance² (2014) or Battle’s Games to Help You Get Ready to Live in the Police State (2014). In “Back to the Future,” though, their work is stripped of its customary levity. de la Garza’s screaming giving myself a reason…, mentioned above, a short loop of the artist screaming in anger and breaking the same glass plate over and over again. In an accompanying note, de la Garza writes that the piece “examines the correlation between catharsis and protest,” and that this action—smashing a plate, screaming, screaming, smashing a plate, “the willingness to break and destroy,” writes de la Garza—may be a way out of a stifling governmentality. However, while perhaps smashing a plate or a window might give one temporary relief, even a temporary agency—remember the smashed windows at the Whole Foods in Oakland, or more recently the torched CVS in Baltimore, the racist and pathetic handwringing over the loss of property while entire neighborhoods were being destroyed and churches burned—the tautological and irritating nature of the video suggests that such actions are ultimately futile. Indeed, we can see the ineffectiveness of recent protest movements, from the “no” vote in Greece two weeks ago all the way back to Occupy Oakland and the catastrophic failure of the so-called Arab Spring, as evidence of the evacuation of effectiveness from 20th-century models of protest. Rather than point to a governmentality that pushes its constituents towards hopelessness, as de la Garza insists in his notes, giving myself a reason to scream but not to cry points to the slow disappearance of hope and its opposite, hopelessness, from the possible field of action proscribed by neoliberal governmentality. If I cannot feel hope I also do not feel hopeless; if I am empty I have nothing to cathart. The feeling of watching the video, which is something like awkwardness, is astonishing in its ability to describe the transition from corporeal body to atomized datum, from proletariat to team.
Battle’s ? (when the cities burn) (2015) is perhaps more mournful. A longer loop of a childlike paper city slowly burning atop a warm wooden surface, ? is a tribute to the loss of ambition, a call to abandon the worldwide desire to move from rural space to urban space, from down to up. It is a potent sentiment in Mexico City, whose population has been booming from the mid-20th century not necessarily because of a desire to find jobs, as many media tend to put it, but rather because of the destruction or exhaustion of local farmland due to the two-headed dragon of climate change and urban demand. Indeed, the hubris of many Western accounts of urban expansion is unbelievable: why would anyone aspire to live in an informal dwelling with no plumbing and no future, the only ways out to die, join a gang, or be incredibly, outrageously lucky? In such narratives the destruction of land and culture is neatly put aside, vanished, in favor of an aspirational narrative more in line with, again, a neoliberal governmentality that structures societal thought towards dreams of upward advancement, the accomplishment of goals, the all-surpassing value of ambition. As these narratives are enforced, the ability to see across them is compromised: it becomes difficult to wonder: advancement towards what? accomplishment of whose goals? what is lost when ambition is favored above all else? As with de la Garza’s, Battle’s brief notes do not do her own work justice. She writes that ? “visualizes the only solution that…might ultimately lead us toward something better,” suggesting that the solution would be when cities burn. I would argue, however, that what the video points to is the need to abandon narratives of ambition, hard work, and upward mobility—to abandon our dreams, which have been dictated to us—in order to locate ourselves, together, across labor and in time.