A conversation with Renzo Martens at a cafe

March 21, 2014 · Print This Article

Guest post by Jacob Wick.

Interview with Richard Florida at Research Seminar from Institute for Human Activities on Vimeo.

I met Renzo Martens at his hotel in Little Tokyo while he was in town for his solo exhibition at The BOX Gallery in Downtown LA. We walked to Café Dulcé, in Little Tokyo, for coffee, which happened to be the same place I had gotten coffee—and a spirulina roll—on my way to meet him. Several tour groups walked past us during our conversation, which lasted about an hour.

Our introductory conversations led me to ask if they have cellphones in…

RM: Boteka.

JW: Do they have phones?

RM: No. When we went there was no network, so there was—only the company had a satellite thing, from which one could e-mail, or Skype possibly, sometimes, depending on the weather. But now, recently, some company installed a antenna, so now the phone thing has started. And obviously people want it. It’s really…

JW: Is that good?

RM: The funny thing is that whatever wealth is accumulated in places like that, it’s used to escape, basically—whether through talking to the outside or getting to the outside.

JW: But is there anything for people if they stay? Or is that something that IHA is trying to provide?

RM: I read this book recently—I have a lot of problems with the book but it certainly makes one point quite clear—this book called Why Do Nations Fail or something. It’s really famous. It’s political theory, but like light, for the masses. But based on research. They’re very prominent scholars. I forget their names. But, so, one big difference between colonization in, let’s say, the US, or Mexico, would have been that, in Mexico you had a highly stratified society, and an enormous population density, and so the Spanish, all they needed to do was control the leaders, and they controlled everybody.

JW: Yeah.

RM: So, you know, they killed the leaders, or co-opted them or what have you, and they could put a highly extractive model on society. You know, everybody has to pay taxes and allegiance to the Spanish guy. And so institutions are meant to extract. Now obviously when the British sent some settlers here, they tried to do the same: get the local people to work. The thing is there weren’t enough local people, and they would just flee, and the land was so big you couldn’t find them anymore, and so you couldn’t have them work for you. So no other option but get these English guys to work for you, but they could flee, too, or you know—there was no reason why they…So gradually—or quite quickly over the course over the course of 50 years—local settlers demanded more rights than they would ever get in England: we want the right to own property, we want to a have council that is going to decide on problems, rather than some guy from England who does it; so it created inclusive structures, institutions. And now, I do think…and this has had the result that even if we are now probably copied by whomever wants to, we think at least that we are able to have any conversation, pretty much. So it creates an environment in which people can come up with ideas, and that’s like the model of capitalism, right? People have ideas, have incentives, make money off it, and because there’s rule of law, this spurs the economy.

JW: But it also needs a subaltern class to do the all the actual labor.

RM: Yeah. So that’s the funny thing. What the book doesn’t acknowledge in any way is that…yeah, but even you’re a subaltern laborer and you have a really good idea, chances are you’re not going to get to Yale and figure out how to license or set up a business. Edison, or I don’t know whom, was the kid of some normal guy, so many people…maybe it’s more difficult now, but anyway the idea is that this model—is that institutions are to some degree inclusive. Of course at the same time you have slavery and the Indians were killed, but within a faction of society at least, there was inclusivity. And that would be very different from Mexico, for example, where you still have these extractive institutions. And if you’re at the top of the pyramid, if you have an opponent that wants to challenge you, all you have to do is call your friends and they’ll find a way to block this other guy, far more so than here. Of course what the US does in its foreign policy is making sure that all these other countries on which resources and labor we depend—we make sure there are already these extractive institutions and that we’re on top of them. And so in the Congo in this place like Boteka—and anywhere else—the institutions are highly extractive. They’re really meant to bleed people. And of course we come with an opposite model, in a way. And so the first thing the company did, as soon as they found out, is make us leave. I don’t know whether you got that story, but they pushed us out at gunpoint. A Canadian company pushed us out at gunpoint.

JW: Really? Wow. I hadn’t heard that.

RM: I haven’t made it public. So…I will, at the right moment. So creativity, however inconsequential it is here, and art, and you know…art is used for other purposes. You know, capital accumulation or gentrification or…

JW: Did they give you a reason for pushing you out?

RM: No. They just said we were illegal.

JW: Were you?

RM: No.

JW: Do you think you’ll go back?

RM: Yeah. I mean, we have kind of an interesting situation, where there’s a place where we really can’t work, and another place where we kind of can. So that’s organically created a research setting that you could otherwise only dream of.

JW: That’s amazing that they found you so threatening. Were they employing all the miners that you were…

RM: They’re palm oil plantation workers.

JW: Oh, ok.

RM: No, and also there was so many better ways of co-opting us. You know, I would say…I mean, I’m interested in co-optation, that’s what I want to research. So they should just have given me $100,000 and said Renzo, any activity you do, we’re happy to sponsor you, and any activity you do, just check with us first. And I would say, yeah, let’s do that, because that’s what I’m all about.

JW: What’s your interest in co-optation? Where did that stem from?

RM: Well, we tend to think that art is this free zone, right? And it is, within the gallery. But the gallery space and whatever art is in it is then in itself very strategically used for other goals, you know? Maybe not if you’re just an artist in your little studio, but as soon as the people in power decide that your work is really good, then it’s used for—to make cities and neighborhoods attractive, for, you know, it’s just—it’s this whole creative class model of Florida, that of course we oppose, too. And yet that’s why biennials and new museums are being financed. That’s how studio spaces move from one area in New York to the other, because, you know, some people in city planning think about these issues. And real estate investors think about these issues. So that’s where you find yourself working on your critical art, in these places. And it’s fine, it’s great, and maybe the content of the critical art has relevance and social or political impact—maybe it does—but arguably, the impact of your sheer presence, whatever the content of your work, and the atmosphere created by the presence of people like you and I, let’s say, in the galleries, in the cappuccino bars, and the this or the that, and then ten years later in the designer jeans and the boutique hotels, and then the museums—that’s far more important than any quote un-quote “content” that we might produce. And so we are really strategic—we are, I mean people are really strategically thinking about where to do it, and so however much we like to dislike Florida—because he doesn’t attribute any intrinsic value to what art is or what it may do, it’s not a place for dissent or real analysis, it’s just a place for coolness and therefore—we all hop the centers that are the living proof of his theory. You know, sure, if Thomas Hirschhorn does something in the Bronx, I’ll go to the Bronx, but otherwise I never go to the Bronx. I hang out in the Lower East Side, and the remainders in Chelsea of previous moves of that same thing. And Martha Rosler hangs out in the Lower East Side, you know, and that’s where e-flux magazine has its headquarters, and et cetera, et cetera.

JW: I feel like that makes sense, though, in the history of art. Like beginning in the 50s, with Seth Siegelaub and the conceptual art zone. His thing was selling immaterial artworks by selling an ethos, or an atmosphere—like come to my house, you’ll meet the artist and have a drink with him and see this work, or come to Max’s Kansas City and have a drink with the artist—like, Douglas Huebler did an inert gas piece—he released some gas out in the desert outside of LA—and Seth Siegelaub made a poster with I think a picture of the desert and some other information, and sent the poster to a very select group of addresses in LA, of collectors and curators and critics and maybe artists, so he’s leveraging, like you say, the coolness of art to create value. That’s how the value was created, was from its own coolness. It’s not in the…

RM: It’s not in the material.

JW: It’s not in the material.

RM: Sure, and that was, at the time, probably it was very often phrased as an anti-capitalist thing, right?

JW: Yeah, but it was totally, completely capitalist. It was perfectly capitalist. Because there doesn’t even need to be a thing.

RM: Well then, yeah, in the inside that’s what we realize. Nothing material is being traded. I mean, sure, yeah, you need a lot of stuff to produce things, maybe more so than before we had these machines [Martens picks up the phone that is recording the conversation], but what drives—it’s really opinions and emotions. And value attributions based on opinions and emotions. That’s what drives the economy. And so inside many people make the analysis that it was this whole immaterialization of the artwork was perfectly in line with the emergence of capital markets and of speculation of many sorts.

JW: I mean, I feel like advertising and—they were very unabashedly aligned throughout the late 50s and throughout the 60s.

RM: Advertisement and what?

JW: Like, advertising strategies and what Siegelaub was doing. No one was bashful about the interaction there.

RM: Well the cool thing is that you advertise nothingness. And we maybe still would like to do that, you know. I guess many people are still very, very tempted by the irony and the—having a work of art that really means nothing at all. That’s still the ultimate cool: for something to be completely devoid of meaning. It’s really cool.

JW: So, I guess I mention that because in the video of the interview you do with Richard Florida, he’s talking about the three T’s—it’s like something, Talent, and Tolerance…

RM: That’s just what he comes up with, that’s just the main of his, uh…

JW: But yeah, the talent thing is so confusing to me, because I feel like in the art world talent is a completely subjective thing that’s determined by lots of other factors that have nothing to do—like, talent is just coolness, or an ethos, it’s not like…

RM: I think he uses talent in the way of talented people. Your talent is like—the guys or girls who have talent. Who have talents. That’s your talent. It’s not a quality within people, it’s people with these qualities. One of his issues is that in order to have your talents, you need to be inclusive of—you need to allow for gays, and Hispanics, because, you know, they have good ideas, too, maybe even better than yours, and so you need to attract these people, make sure they want to stay. So you have to be tolerant to whatever strange habits they have, because that’s automatically, you know, human creativity is such an automatically—good sense will come up, and there’s some money for it, and there’s technology, and technology and tolerance, then you know, you’ll have Google or Apple.

JW: Magically.

RM: And so art is one of the factors that…

JW: Does art attract talent or does art create talent?

RM: I actually don’t know. I actually never read his book.

JW: I’ve read like one article that is like Richard Florida, you’re an asshole, and then one article by Richard Florida that’s like no, I’m actually great, here’s why.

RM: I should read that. No, I read a little bit of that of course. And you know, Martha Rosler, like “Don’t Gentrify, Occupy,” and it’s great, and it happens on a symbolic level, but on a real material level, it’s just…yeah.

JW: What’s the goal of the Institute for Human Activities?

RM: Well, I guess there are three goals, maybe, or four. I’m really interested in the suspending apparatus of art and the material conditions of its production. So in that way I really feel really aligned with 1960s minimalism. I really love that. But I also have a real interest in income inequality and in trickery and deceit, and how it’s used, and the media representations of poverty, which are really part of the trickery and the deceit. So that’s a completely different interest altogether, but somehow I figured—you know, Unilever is—did you see this long film I made, Episode 3? At the Box?

JW: No…oh, the…

RM: Enjoy Poverty.

JW: Yeah.

RM: Ok. So that’s like an earlier work. It gets really dirty—I think it’s a good work, but I’ve kind of moved on. I would never make it again. I want things to be much cleaner.

JW: What do you mean by dirty?

RM: It’s very dirty. I mean, I really get my hands in the dirt. And I smear my own face with it, basically. And it’s like—and also there’s no escape from it, somehow. All the avenues of the sense are kind of—I show how they are all co-opted, every single one of them. The resistance against it is part of this whole…stage, um, what’s the word? The resistance is part of the carnival. And all the outside forces that could intervene, like stop the bad things happening, they’re all involved already, they’re all part of the carnival, and I really tried to show it as such and show that there’s no outside position to it. I’m part of that charade and my critical art piece is also absolutely part of that charade and, you know, there’s no way out. So ok, that was that.

JW: Yeah.

RM: So I’m interested in these material conditions, and I just found out not too long ago, that these big Unilever plantations in the Congo were a big constituting part of Unilever’s business empire. Unilever’s one of the biggest consumer companies in this world. It’s huge. And on the other hand, it’s funded, for example, the Unilever series at Tate Modern, including—did you come to my talk? Because I talked about this.

JW: I didn’t come to your talk. But I was reading on your…

RM: Website.

JW: Website.

RM: Yeah. I think we removed the whole thing about Unilever at this point, or it’s really understated.

JW: Maybe. I mean, you mention that they sponsored a bunch of exhibitions at the Tate, including work by critical artists, who—I don’t remember the specific people, but…

RM: So that’s great, I mean, why not? It’s fantastic. But it’s—you know, the surplus being spent at Tate has somehow something to do with the $20 a month maximum that people get on the plantations, and then if the art shown at the Tate that’s critical about economic relations, about political power, about—some is not, some is sheer poetry, and that’s fine, but some if it is really critical about all these issues, and then somehow these works don’t seem to acknowledge that they are critical, funded by something that is very material, which is people’s labor that goes unpaid. So I don’t want to employ any moral position here, I just want the art world to come to terms with its own material conditions. That’s all.

JW: Is that the way that you were viewing making Enjoy Poverty, too, like not taking a moral position, just…

RM: I tried, I tried, yeah.

JW: …reflecting something back at the art world.

RM: Yeah. I mean, I guess I succeeded to some degree. I mean certainly the person I am in the film doesn’t seem to make choices based on morality.

JW: Well, it’s sort of like a really naive morality at work in that person.

RM: Yeah. And I think the piece—that piece—of course by exhibiting all that it’s deeply moral. I guess.

JW: It produces a lot of intense—like the discussion slash—it was mostly an argument that followed it at the Kadist—was very moralistic.

RM: Oh, you were at the Kadist, right…

JW: Yeah. Does that bother you that it produces almost entirely moralist conversations?

RM: Yeah, it does bother me. I mean, I’m just copy-pasting here, I’m not doing anything other than what’s constantly being done. It just shows that people have no clue, is what I think.

JW: Yeah. I don’t disagree.

RM: People have no clue. And so that’s the problem with I think 99 percent of socially-engaged artists is that they have no clue. They’re trying to make an exception to the status quo and therefore obscure the status quo in their little art space center, and then this is, if they’re really lucky it gets into God knows what network, and then the people who may well be the funders of the systems that are being attacked in the socially-engaged work get to have it both ways: you have the benefits of the extractive system, and you have the beautiful art pieces that somehow counterbalance all of that.

JW: And you have the really pleasing self-knowledge that you acted critically against this…

RM: Yeah, yeah. And I mean it’s funny if you don’t take it seriously, and then it’s fine, but people take it very seriously, and then I think it’s just dumb, basically. And its dumbness—it’s not that they’re not intelligent —it’s dumb based on, in my mind, a lack of acknowledgement of one’s own position within this global stratification. I mean, I understand that you start thinking about any and all of these issues because you’re deeply disturbed that people die of hunger just because of some silly misallocation of resources—you know, that’s the reason, basically—and it’s deeply disturbing, obviously, and so you start making work that wants to, on a symbolic level, address that or break that inequality. But if you don’t go through the phase first, or intermediary of, addressing the structural issues, and your own implication in these structural issues that produce that misallocation of resources, then you end up just making postcards, like postcards of—like I often equate it to Baroque medieval trompe l’Å“il paintings on church ceilings, you know? It creates this beautiful image of the heavens without addressing any of the multiple tricks and strategies that have been used to put it there, to make it visible for you, very elaborate games with vantage points and scaffolding that was there, I’m sure, all that is taken away, and so this beautiful picture of heaven, it’s never going to be reality, it’s just there to look at, to be mesmerized by. And so maybe that’s good enough, but it belongs to the realm of poetry, it’s not political at all. So if you do something with refugees or immigrants and it’s only about poetry, fine, but if you think it’s political then I think it’s really crucial to somehow acknowledge the material conditions of art production. Which involve, while we have this talk, global inequality and war pays the bills.

JW: Yeah, exactly.

RM: And so, let’s at least integrate that….

JW: Like the materials that are inside this phone were probably mined illegally in the Congo.

RM: Sure, and if they were legally, it’s worse.

JW: Really?

RM: Yeah, because if it’s illegal, then at least…what is called “legal” is that people have the right paperwork do the job.

JW: That’s what I was thinking. I heard a radio program about Apple, or some big tech company—Intel, maybe—that’s like we’re not going to get any more tantalum from mines that don’t have the proper certification, and everyone is like really applauding themselves and being really happy and then I was like, it’s just a piece of paper!

RM: I mean, the idea is maybe good. You have all these illegal mining things, you have local militias controlling them, kids doing the work, et cetera, you know, it’s abhorrent, people get AIDS, they’re drunk all the time, ok, so let’s stop that. All right. So what happens is that the mine is closed up – same happens in diamonds, the Kimberly Process, you had all these blood diamonds, right?

JW: There’s a lot of LA that exists because of them.

RM: Yeah. So now the diamonds or the coltan or what have you needs to be certified, so it means that the people who can’t get the certification going are out of business, so that means anybody who doesn’t have a Yale degree basically, right? If you’re an African guy, you know, you have your mine that happens to be there, you rounded up your friends, you’ll do it—you’re out of the game. So the UN will intervene and say no no, you don’t have the right paperwork, let’s call up Banro Co, or AngloGold Ashanti, and they’ll do the job, and then the people doing the mining, they get into UN programs to start raising rabbits or something. They’re kind of out of the game. And it sounds good—like let’s regulate this business—but of course it also means let’s give the business to people who can afford $500 per hour lawyers. That’s what it also means. Or $5000, maybe, I don’t know. There’s no UN push to start up collectives of miners regulating themselves and adhering to really important rules, no! I mean, that would be great—like let’s collectively mine this stuff that’s in our ground here, and let’s collectively decide that we’ll comply…

JW: …how much we’re going to sell it for, and how we’re going to mine it, and…

RM: Yeah, and let’s stick to the regulations that the Kimberly Process wants for us, why not? If these are the rules of the game then let’s adhere to that. But no no no, that’s not going to happen. So it’s a matter of appropriation, basically.

JW: Is that something that you saw or still see the IHA as helping to…?

RM: So I was talking about the different goals. Maybe they’re twofold, or fourfold even. So one of them is to somehow recalibrate critical artista’ practice—and therefore art’s mandate—in a way that the settlement is an opportunity for people to come to terms—to see the material conditions that are an integral part of their art production. It changes the way you’ll have your cappuccino in the morning if you see the guys picking the cocoa, the coffee. It just changes it. That’s a really good starting point to then do something with the rest of your day. Because most of the critical theory is, you know, kind of invented on the planes between those gentrified centers of New York and Berlin and all that. So I think few of those people ever visited a plantation like that. So we’ll have an artist residency, and the goal of the artist residency is for people to, you know…

JW: See.

RM: …see, and therefore rethink what the nature of their critique may be. So that’s one thing. That’s the residency program. We also have a gentrification program. We build an arts center, so that it spurs the local economy, the way it does in New York and Berlin, has cappuccino bars and all that, and then, you know, economic diversification is quite interesting and important because now people have subsistence farming and underpaid plantation labor. And they’ve been offering the proceeds of that stuff for a century now to us, but it never was accompanied by their ideas, or their emotions, or opinions. While that is exactly what may be their biggest contributions to the world – their ideas and emotions. They actually may make money with it. And that would be quite novel, that a critique on Congolose labor conditions would have an actual economic impact in the Congo, in the place where these labor conditions occur.

JW: Would the proceeds go directly to the Congolese?

RM: Yeah. Well, not entirely directly, because nobody ever had a $500 check in their hands. It’s going to create a lot of trouble, unless we make sure there’s a buffer zone in which it has communal advantages and all that.

JW: Is that how you’d fund building things like the cappuccino bar or whatever?

RM: No no. The money goes to them. They can come have a cappuccino—if they want to open their own cappuccino stores, we’ll gladly help them. The guy gets the money, but rather than just handing them a $500 bill, we’ll say, you know, maybe: “Here’s 100, but let’s think also about these other 400, how you can maybe invest it in a way that’s a little bit more sustainable, and make sure it’s not going to be stolen for you by the police,” for example. So we have to get them all involved. That’s all. But it’s money, I mean—but you need to manage it a bit because otherwise it’s going to create a lot of trouble. People deal with $20, $30 budgets on a monthly basis. That’s kind of…

JW: Yeah, I was just thinking…I was going to make some kind of point about how a lot of the art economy functions on unpaid interns and underpaid gallery workers, but here underpaid is like $12, $15 an hour, which is…

RM: Yeah, that’s what I pay my people.

JW: But it’s like…that’s a month’s work.

RM: Well, I must confess, I think it’s a really crucial issue, the idea that the art world—not the art world like Gagosian or even Mara [McCarthy, Principal/Curator of the BOX Gallery] or Paul [McCarthy, artist]—but the art world, all the kids, are all working for nothing, obviously, and are like a labor pool, almost endless labor pool, and are attracted by the same coolness. You know, what a lifestyle! This is work, somehow. Just talk about your own ideas and somebody else’s ideas that are fun and write about it. So many people talk about precarious labour in the arts, and it’s important I think, but it seems to be blind for half of the world’s population that never has a fucking cappuccino while thinking about one’s own ideas because they’re just working in mines and cleaning bedrooms and god knows what they’re all doing. And I think they’re as much part of the material conditions of art production as these gallery interns.

JW: If not more so. They made the shit that everyone is sitting on.

[pause]

JW: How is the IHA funded? Is it through…

RM: Public and private.

JW: Dutch public?

RM: Dutch, German, hopefully British. Scandinavian, hopefully American. Belgian. This thing is a big idea. You could do it small, actually—you probably could do it with $200,000—but I think that it could cost $2 million over the next 5 years. So I want that. So I’m going to work on it until I get it. So it’s really stressful, and also…

JW: I feel like there’s a lot of irritating conversations that you have to have in order to do this. Not irritating, but kind of like—using a lot of buzzwords.

RM: No, it’s not. I mean, most people that want to work with me obviously they see value in the thing, and so it’s not irritating. But still, again, it’s about times and contracts and the more you stack of these the more you have to become accountable to them and respond to them and, you know. And they’ll say, “oh no, this show, we thought we’d do it in 2015, but now we’re not going to do if its 2016,” it’s kind of hard if $200,000 is attached to it. In the end, I’ll do what I need to do, but—you want another coffee?

JW: I’d love another coffee.

RM: What kind is it?

JW: Just an Americano would be fine.

RM: With milk in it?

JW: No, no milk. Thanks.

[Renzo leaves to order more coffee and returns.]

JW: You mentioned that the funders see value in this. Do they see the same value in it that you do?

RM: It depends on the funder. Some funder likes the idea of making creativity, or critical thinking, into a tool to generate economic growth, rather than funding mosquito nets. So some people are interested in that. And other people are interested in the recalibration of art’s critical mandate aspect to it. But they’re really intrinsically linked—they’re really connected. So I don’t personally see any disparity between the fact that on the one hand we have very real aspirations—and even targets—as a social impact thing locally, and on the other hand have very real aspirations in generating knowledge on art’s position in the global economic system. They’re really one and the same. I mean, we can’t do the one endeavor without the other and vice versa. So of course I’ll talk with them, and I’ll explain to them what I’ve explained to you, and I see what they’re interested in, if anything at all. Yeah, so there are no secrets to it. I mean, I think it’s important to stress that we’re really working within capitalism. We are. Again, because I think…

JW: I mean, you are, but then if your goal is to take this group of workers out of this bottom rung of capitalism, somebody else is going to have to fill that hole.

RM: Sure, that’s how it goes.

JW: How do you address that? Do you address that at all?

RM: It’s a good point. I actually have not addressed it. Indeed, some people will turn out to be really talented, so they’ll maybe take their chances and start making art. And then somebody else is going to fill that hole, for example, in the subsistence farming or the plantation labor. Maybe wages will start raising. We’re moving away from the plantation where we work, so it’ll just…

JW: Even though you got forced out at gunpoint?

RM: No, we’ll move to another settlement. Hopefully we’ll stay there for many years. But what I’m pointing at is that we’re not—it’s not like the people who make new opportunities through our presence, they’re not going to move away, they’re going to remain there, because that’s where the market is. We’re an entryway to the market, in a way. So I think people will benefit, even those who stay working on the plantation. Because the guys that I will work with, maybe they’ll open up a taxi service—which is a bicycle, right? you sit on the back—or maybe somebody will open a store for flip flops…

JW: Or now that cellphones are going to be there, maybe somebody will open a cellphone charging place or whatever.

RM: Yeah, or maybe we can do something collective also. Maybe we can have—organize something with just one really good internet connection—I mean, the cellphones drain so much money out of places like that, it’s sick. So I would be interested in finding another way of doing that, maybe also by finding a way of working with the cellphone company. We’ll see.

JW: Our coffees are ready. Do you want yours to go, or…?

RM: No, I’ll drink it.

[Jacob retrieves the coffees.]

RM: Thank you partner.

JW: There you go. I even got complimented on my sweater.

RM: Oh yeah, and it matches your socks also.

JW: Yeah. I don’t know—I guess I’m very excited and curious to see what happens next. Because if or when you are convincing people to leave these labor conditions in order to do something else…

RM: I’m not going to convince them.

JW: You’re not going to convince them?

RM: No. We set up shop and we say, “You want to make some drawings? Make some drawings.” And then maybe two persons make really good drawings, and I say oh, would you mind if we show them, like in Frankfurt or something? And they’ll say no, show them in Frankfurt. And we’ll make sure somebody buys them, and we’ll say, hey, we sold your drawings, here’s $500, what shall we do with it? And then, you know, chances are…he’ll have a tiny bit of agency. He can say to his boss, “I would like to get a better job in this company, and I can afford to ask for it because if you don’t give me a better job I’ll just make more drawings.” So it creates a tiny opening. But I really have to stress how non-revolutionary we are—we’re just going to do what art does, which is create a really tiny alternative economy which rich people really like to have around, and then see how it goes. And the bigger goal is on the one hand, that has effect locally, but especially it creates a lot of knowledge about what art does and also what it does not do— what we can make it do in the real world.

JW: Do you think that rich people will move to the Congo?

RM: I don’t know, maybe. I mean certainly we should start a hotel. I’m talking about bamboo huts.

JW: Hotel, coffeeshop…bar?

RM: Bar.

JW: What else exists?

RM: Restaurant.

JW: Restaurant.

RM: Hotel, coffeshop, bar, restaurant…

JW: A coffeeshop would be good, too, because a lot of coffee grows in the Congo.

RM: Yeah, we just need to teach them how to make cappuccinos in a proper way, get one of these…

JW: It could be local.

RM: Well, they don’t—people don’t drink so much coffee there. And they grind it and they put some other herbs in there, like ginger, so it’s like a medicinal drink, to drug you a bit. I mean, it’s the same, but it’s not covered up by the sweetness or softness of milk, for example. Also there’s hardly any milk, all the milk is imported. People do have goats. Maybe we can try and get goat milk cappuccinos. We’ll figure it out.

JW: How do you find the funding institutions?

RM: Sorry?

JW: How do you isolate the funding institutions? Do they find you or do you seek them out?

RM: I seek them out. It’s a lot of work. But they’re the usual suspects. It’s quite easy. And we’re trying to get—there’s some private money in it. But maybe what I really need is for somebody who can just put on a million, say this a great idea and put on a million. That would save me from a lot of headaches.

JW: I feel like that person exists in LA. But I don’t know who it is.

RM: Yeah, I do think that’s true. And also I have to grow into a position and a presentation, and we need to prove a couple of things in the Congo, and we have to have sold these drawings in Frankfurt, and, you know, our test run needs to be a little bit more—the knowledge needs to be deepened before somebody will put in a million, I think. Or maybe not, we’ll see.

JW: When you present the Institute, are you presenting it as you, or are you presenting it as a character, like you were describing…

RM: Neither. No, it’s an institute. I happen to be this artistic director, but I’m not the financial director. I’m just the guy that came up with the main ideas in the beginning, and then many of the things I’ve told you have been developed collectively, with other people. We had an opening seminar, in Congo, just to kind of think all these things through, and we’ll have another one soon. I mean, it’s an art project, the whole thing is kind of a big social sculpture, but I’m not the author of it. It’s an institute.

JW: Do you think of it as an artwork and an institute, or just an artwork, or just an institute? An institute that’s an artwork? Because those seem like two different things, maybe.

RM: No, I think the way I got through it is that it’s just searching a higher level of abstraction to create a space in which art can be made that—create a space that creates an opportunity for art to come to terms with its own existence. So I told you the problem if I’m a critical artist and I do it from my studio in Brooklyn, for example, so if I don’t take into account the bigger economic structures, my work is just going to be a little thing in a machine, and it won’t reflect the machine itself, other than symbolically, and even that symbolic reflection will function in that machine, right? So what I need to do is own the machine. So that’s the level of abstraction we need to work on in order to generate knowledge about art and the machine. So that’s why we can’t be an artist, we can’t be a curator, we have to be an institution, but even more than that, we need to be the economic forces that are derived from that institution. So that’s why we’re a gentrification program.. And you could call that an artwork…

JW: Do you need to call that an artwork?

RM: Not necessarily, but it certainly is an artwork.

JW: The most recent project I did I wasn’t sure whether it was an artwork or not, and also I wasn’t sure if I cared.

RM: Well I care. I care, because I really believe in art. As I said in the beginning, I don’t use moral arguments to do it, or I try to avoid to. And so the arguments I use come from this huge and very complicated tradition in the arts of an art piece, or art, being the one place in culture where the suspending apparatus for image or knowledge production is kind of…made part of the equation. Not just the outcomes, like the trompe l’Å“il thing, but also the suspending apparatus. And so that’s something that’s highly singular about art production is that it does that, or that there is this tradition. And so that’s what I’m dependent on. And that’s why it’s kind of important to pay allegiance to that tradition. It couldn’t have come out of any other realm of life that I know of. Maybe philosophy, but I don’t read enough books for that.

JW: But probably not. I guess there’s an ancient tradition in philosophy of establishing schools, but there’s not really a tradition of things that involve other people. Philosophy seems like a very solitary endeavor. I guess art does, too.

RM: Hmm. Yeah, schools. Yeah, maybe it’s going to be a school, in that way.

JW: An academy.

RM: Hopefully. Come around sometime. Like in a year or something, it’ll be kind of up and running. If we get physical/material stability, then it’s nice to have you out there or something.

JW: Yeah, I’d love to. I’d have to find some resources of my own to get there.

RM: It’s not expensive. The ticket’s going to cost you $1000, and life’s very cheap. If you don’t want to stay in the equivalent of this hotel [gestures towards Hotel Miyako], but you’ll just make do in our hut that I’ll give you. So it doesn’t cost anything really. You eat local food and all that, right?

JW: Yeah.

RM: It’s fun. It’s good. You’ll learn a lot.

JW: Do you see yourself living there?

RM: Yeah. As soon as we can. That’s why I really have to make sure my wife trusts me.

Renzo Martens is a Dutch artist and filmmaker and currently serves as director of the Institute for Human Activities, which runs an arts-based development program in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In his first film, Episode 1, Renzo travels to Chechnya to adopt a rarely defined role in contemporary war: that of its spectator. Episode 3, also known as Enjoy Poverty, is a meditation on the political claims of contemporary art and the result of Renzo’s two-year journey in the Congo. Martens’s films have been shown at the 6th Berlin Biennial, Tate Modern in London, Centre Pompidou in Paris, Van Abbe Museum Eindhoven, Kunsthaus Graz, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, as well as at numerous film festivals and on public broadcast channels. Renzo co-founded the Institute for Human Activities in 2010 with legal structures in Amsterdam, Brussels and Kinshasa. The Institute has launched a five-year program in the Congolese interior, bringing together artists, thinkers and specialists. With a nod to precedents set in cities like New York and Berlin, the Institute aims to turn art production into an engine of economic growth in Congo, hoping to improve the lives of the people around its settlement. Episode 3: Enjoy Poverty can be seen at the disputed 2014 Sydney Biennial, opening today, March 21; Episode 1 was withdrawn. Read Martens’s open letter to the organizers and participants of the 2014 Sydney Biennial here.

 

Jacob Wick is an artist, writer, and improviser who lives in Los Angeles. In 2013, he coordinated Germantown City Hall, an installation of civic space in a disused structure in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Germantown City Hall was a collaboration with Information Department and the Think Tank that has yet to be named…, and was commissioned by the 2013 Hidden City Festival with generous support from the Andy Warhol Foundation.



take it or leave it, chump

February 21, 2014 · Print This Article

Guest post by Jacob Wick.

A current exhibition at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology, is a deft rebuttal of Institutional Critique. Take It or Leave It mashes together a variety of well-known works by well-known IC artists, creating a confused jumble of brands intelligible only if viewed in the same spirit as one views a shoe rack at a department store. The message, delivered through the cunning mess organized by curators Anne Ellegood, senior curator at the Hammer Museum, and Johanna Burton, Keith Haring Director and Curator of Education and Public Engagement at the New Museum, seems to be: Institutional Critique, and by extension most current critical art, is irrelevant. Take it or leave it. I am tempted to agree.

Upon walking into the exhibition, on the second floor of the newly-free Hammer Museum, one encounters, first, and fittingly first, Andrea Fraser. She beams from a bulky television screen, leading a Gallery Talk (1989), a repeatable performance for which she is widely identified. As she primly leads us through a series of quotations lifted from museum brochures, reviews, and so on, highlighting an institutional language that has only intensified and become more isolated from everyday language in the last twenty to thirty years since Fraser led these tours—leading of course to that awful Institutional Art English article I hate so much, because honestly the everyday language of cricket fans or teenage YouTube enthusiasts is as unintelligible to me as Benjamin H.D. Buchloh might be to them, and you know, if you want to learn a sociolect, learn it, it’s really not that hard—we glance to the right and are accosted by Renée Green’s garish (but quite beautiful) Mise-en-Scène: Commemorative Toile (1992-1994), and a pair of bits of Mark Dion pieces, The Department of Marine Animal Identification of the City of New York (Chinatown Division) (1992) and New York State Bureau of Tropical Conservation (1992). This all in a room—a foyer, really—perhaps 8 ft x 20 ft. The trend continues throughout the rest of the show, with a bewildering oversaturation of work by easily recognizable IC artists organized room-by-room according to big dumb categories like THE MUSEUM or POLITICS. The POLITICS room, for instance, has two works by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, two works by Robert Gober, and three works each by Jenny Holzer and Fred Wilson! Wow! Oh, and a Glenn Ligon piece, if I remember right.

fgt-fgt

Two famous works by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. I was informed by the guard that, while the exhibition encourages photographs (no flash, please!) and especially sharing on Instagram with #TIOLI, I could not photograph Robert Wilson’s or Robert Gober’s work.

The aural confusion rivals the visual confusion, with sound bleeding from Andrea in front, a relatively innocuous guitar piece with very nice furniture by the only name I didn’t recognize in the show (and which I didn’t write down, but I probably should have laid down on the furniture, I have to admit I was a little tired while viewing, or attempting to view, this show), the arabesque from Dana Birnbaum’s three-channel video installation Arabesque, and several other voices speaking from several other video installations. One can really only walk through the show saying, “oh, Andrea Fraser! oh, Alan McCollum! oh, Felix Gonzalez-Torres! oh, Adrian Piper!” and so on. Each work, regardless of its individual merit or its potentially radical past effect on the institutionalized art world of the 1980s and 1990s, becomes a calling card, a simple brand identifier, a shoe. The effect is to suggest a feeling that Institutional Critique should be, or has already been, laid to rest, that it has suffered the same fate as its preceding movements and morphed into a series of innocuous and critically irrelevant calling cards.

While Institutional Critique was certainly relevant—often many other things, including beautiful, shocking, and a variety of other adjectives, many of which are vinyled to the already-crammed walls of the show in the form of various historical derogatory reviews of IC artists—during its heyday, in the Internet age, where anyone looking at art or working in the art world probably has a smartphone and enjoys, or pretends to enjoy, a variety of privileges vis a vis the rest of the world, including the ability to very easily and quickly assemble a tawdry list of dirt surrounding any institution, from Hammer to the dollar, the opacity that once enshrouded institutions with a veneer of acceptability and inevitability has been replaced with an ironic remove that ensures the same effect. This ironic remove serves a very useful purpose insofar as it allows us to continue living lives of privilege without the persistent nag of horror at how and where our clothes were made, where the materials in our smartphones were mined and in what conditions (not to mention the conditions in which they were made), and the total unraveling of the environment that has recently become apparent. There is, almost without doubt, a legacy of horror in at least one object within 50 ft of you; there is, almost without doubt, a weather event without precedent that is currently occurring or has recently occurred in the region where in which you live. A lightly sneering ironic remove allow us to, in the words of a WWII propaganda designed by British intelligence in the event of catastrophic air attacks that tellingly became a meme so successful that it adorns dorm rooms everywhere, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” This ironic remove is necessary to live life without succumbing to a deep and unshakeable sense of doom and should be embraced, unabashedly, as such. This selfsame remove, however, is what renders work like IC, that attempts to call us out on things that we are very likely already aware of but are making a decision to ignore to retain a certain degree of sanity, irrelevant, for being reminded of the knowledge we are trying to ignore strengthens, rather than weakens, our barriers against it.

Let us, like Paul Bettany’s character in Dogville, consider an illustration. I am in a social situation with a friend. A party, perhaps, someone’s house or apartment, a someone that neither of us know particularly well, but who has invited us, for whatever reason, over. The party is relatively low-key. At some point, my friend goes to the bathroom. When my friend returns, I notice their fly is unzipped and mention that hundreds of people recently died in a factory fire in a garment factory in Dhaka, a fire that is having relatively little effect on the efforts of anyone to regulate garment factories in countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia, where conditions are widely known to be unacceptable. I conclude by pointing out our party—our drinks, our clothes, our phones on which we take pictures and look up things on Wikipedia (or whatever), the iPad or iPod the music is playing off of, perhaps even the building we sit in, perhaps it is a house that was purchased and flipped after a predatory loan forced its foreclosure—is only possible because we are the privileged beneficiaries of a vicious and exploitative economic system so deeply pervasive that it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine its alternatives. Have I performed Institutional Critique?

Insofar as a party is an institution—any party, regardless of its particular circumstances, contains both a normative protocol and an accompanying normative horizon of possible outcomes, just as any institution does—yes, I have. Formerly, institutions maintained credibility by disguising, with varying degrees of force, the aspects of their makeup that might damage that credibility. Institutional Critique directed its gaze, or rather our gaze, at these aspects. I can only assume that the effect was shocking and/or confusing, since I am too young to have experienced Institutional Critique during its era of relevance. In any case, were I to point out that to my friend that their pants were made in horrific conditions, etc, I would be highlighting an aspect of the institution that most parties try to leave out, namely that the objects that make the party fun were very likely produced in dire circumstances and as a result of great suffering.

While it is certainly possible that such a proclamation would have had an effect on a party pre-smartphone, it is almost impossible that such a proclamation, made now, would not be immediately dismissed or laughed off, or said, in the first place, with a degree of irony so as to neutralize its contents. Most people at the party, most people at any party of people that enjoy a certain level of privilege, likely already have heard about the Dhaka fire, or have heard the phrase “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” or something like it, and all of those people—those people who read Twitter or listen to NPR or the BBC or read the Guardian or whatever, who cares really—okay, us or we, not those people—choose to ignore these concrete facts of our own existences. We live in a constant state of dramatic irony, or something very close to the old Greek eirōneia.

nayl-ollum

A video of Nayland Blake performing Gorge (1998) reflects onto a well-known piece by Allan McCollum.

Had we all been alive thousands of years ago, located in a relatively small area of the Mediterranean, and had the luck or circumstance to be a free or free-ish citizen of an antiquity-era Greek city-state, we might have, at some point, gone to a play. Regardless of whether or not this play was a tragedy or comedy, there would probably, at some point, be a character speaking from beneath us, down the stairs of the amphitheater onto the stage, a character who was speaking of something that we, the audience, knew was false. We would know it was false because of something else we had learned during the play, in another scene, a scene in which the character now speaking did not appear. We would know and the actor would know, probably, having been in rehearsals, spoken to other actors, and been aware of the general arc of the play. Everybody would know besides the character speaking, the character who has temporarily taken the place of the actor, who we—the audience and perhaps the actor, I don’t really know about acting—temporarily identify with, moreso than our identification with what is real.

We are now, at this point, the actors and audience in our own scenes, which are not in amphitheaters, but instead are in living rooms, museums, concert halls, book fairs, art fairs, galleries, restaurants, bars, whatever.   At all of these times, in all of these places, we are ourselves, but we are different versions of ourselves: we are our house-party self, our museum self, our concert hall self, our book fair self, gallery self. Pablo Helguera, with droll precision, has highlighted this in his book Art Scenes: The Social Scripts of the Art World; Alex Galloway, much less drolly but no less precise, has highlighted this in his book Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization. Both authors point out that we act not in regard to dictates from sovereign power—the King, the state, whatever—but rather in regard to the protocols (for Helguera, scripts) we assume to be inherent and inevitable in a given situation. When briefly employed at a Hollywood gallery for which I was asked to write a press release for a show of paintings I found tedious and boring, I did not, for instance, write “this show is tedious and boring, but would probably look great above your designer furniture and that’s why it’s being shown here,” but rather wrote a press release in the style of blue-chip gallery press releases (“We are pleased to present…”). I’m not sure if that’s a particularly good example, but who cares? All saltwater fish will die off in 35 years.

discard

A discarded wrapper from Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Untitled (USA Today) (1990) in the parking lot of the Hammer.

For the 2012 Whitney Biennial, Andrea Fraser contributed a pair of essays: “There’s No Place Like Home,” in which she eloquently considers (and doubts) her own relevance; and “L’1% C’est Moi,” a beautifully-researched, well-written account of the current art market and its inextricable ties with the very people many critical artists, whose livelihoods depend on the art market, love to hate. The latter, while very informative, is very clearly Institutional Critique, a highlighting of an institutional issue that was very likely already known, and if unknown certainly intuited, by whoever might have read it. The former, on the other hand, is an investigation into the nature of critique, in which Fraser wonders if

… by interpreting negations as critique, by responding to judgments of attribution with judgments of attribution, by aggressively attempting to expose conflicts and to strip away defenses in critiques of critiques and negations of negations, critical practices and discourses may often collude in the distancing of affect and the dissimulation of our immediate and active investments in our field.

Does critique, of the sort that pervaded Institutional Critique and that pervades critical art following IC, aid us in our collective pushing away of actual, real problems? Does it aid us in ignoring that the Whitney is funding by the financial institutions and executives who are responsible for the slow bleed-out of the world’s environment, of global socio-economic mobility? Does it help us “Keep Calm and Carry On?” Sure it does, because we already know all that shit and we’re ignoring it because we’re alive and what else are we going to do!

In a conversation I had recently with Renzo Martens about the Institute for Human Activities, for which he is the Creative Director, while he was in town for a solo show at The BOX, he mentioned both that he is interested in redirecting critical art’s “mandate” and that his work with the IHA is decidedly non-revolutionary. “We’re just going to do what art does,” he said. “Which is, like, create a really tiny alternative economy which rich people really like to have around, and see how it goes.” The IHA is an institution that quite earnestly touts art as a means for revitalizing a town outside of Kinshasa in the war-torn, globally-exploited DRC and which operates off of the already well-established model of the global arts residency. The IHA will, and has already attempted to begin to, teach drawing and other arts-related classes to palm-oil plantation workers; a few of these workers will be particularly talented; the IHA will, with the local artists’ permission, sell their drawings in the international art market; the proceeds from these sales will lift those few lucky artists out of poverty; other palm-oil workers may become more interested in art and work harder on drawings than on manufacturing palm oil; and so on. The settlement will offer an artists’ residency for artists to engage with the local arts scene and teach classes to locals. Meanwhile, rich people, who love to be around the creature comforts that artists surround themselves with—nice bars, cappuccinos, good food, artists—will stay in an onsite hotel, increasing the settlements’ real-estate value and general quality of life. Perhaps these people will buy or build houses near or on the settlement, as they have in places like Marfa, TX, raising the value of the property and ostensibly improving quality of life for everybody. In short, aside from the occasional swipe on its website, there is no critical component to the IHA at all. That said, the logical conclusion of the IHA—or one possible or believable conclusion, given that institutions function almost entirely on belief, as Adam Overton pointed out in my interview with him, not on logic—is that the palm-oil workers will stop working in the palm-oil plantation and start drawing, thereby robbing Unilever of the exploited underclass that it, like all capitalist enterprises, needs to survive.

If Martens is redirecting art’s critical mandate, as he says he wishes to do, he is redirecting it towards creating art that is not critical at all, but that rather simply does what art does, or what capitalism does, or what whatever does. Perhaps what we need now, he is saying—and, again, I can’t help but agree—is engagement, whether naïve or not, rather than negation, for only in our engagement can we, and whosoever has the (mis)fortune to surround our work, truly experience the absurd, hideous, exploitive nature of the institutions that structure our lives. As Danh Vo says in this hilariously uncomfortable YouTube interview with Bartholomew Ryan of the Walker Art Center: it is “very important to…exercise the bureaucracy.”

Jacob Wick is an artist, writer, and improviser who lives in Los Angeles. For more information, visit jacobwick.info. Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology is on view until May 18, 2014, at the Hammer Museum. Renzo Martens: Episode III is on view until March 1st, 2014, at the BOX Gallery.