Tom Clark
3rd Wave - disco balls & in-betweenness.

(Part of a series of 7 working metaphors)

Published to vqxz.net, as part of Devotions at MOT International Project Space, March 2015

3rd wave - disco balls (& in-betweenness)

Stuck in future-present: no-liberalism

Part 1


(William Knight)

Is there an outside to the state we're in? I'm at that bad bit of party where your head hurts, your friends are missing and you're minesweeping ash-ridden drinks. The only entertainment on offer is trying to catch the momentary reflections that two glitterballs create in one another. Splinters of light shatter against the other's crazy-paved mirrored glass. Something minimal or pitch-bent is playing overhead.

[1]  Or what's left of it as it wanes. With the collapses in the EU, liberal individualism seems only available to the ultra-wealthy few.

It felt what it's like trying to talk about neoliberalism[1]. In terms of history, and outside of the aesthetics, invisibility and exploitation of labour and bodies it has produced through this surface -- what I mean is: trying to a talk about it without talking about an ideological proposition that re-forms each and every time you utter it. N...o L...m. Michael Hardt (followed by many in the digital generation of artists) has said that neoliberal capital has no outside: an absolute inside. Drawing on Foucault and Deleuze, the one-time exteriority of madness and the 'absolute outside' of literature as an interface on which to meditate a field that now seems exhausted as a field of possibility (think only pharmaceutical industry, and simultaneous in/hyper-visibility of mental health care): Hungarian philosopher Peter Pál Pelbart suggests a condition of contemporary claustrophobia - a "situation in front of which we feel entirely disarmed; that is, an index of a thought without outside in a world without exteriority."[2] 'There is no alternative' meets a long term economic plan.

[2] Peter Pál Pelbart, 2000, 'The Thought of The Outside, The Outside of Thought' Angelak: journal of the theoretical humanities, Vol 5, #2, August 2000, p202.

But if an inside is what makes an outside, can we make something inside this that might undo Hardt and Pelbart's description of life in the C21st? Work, leisure, the 'anthropocene' (no more difference between 'us' and 'nature') with no outside;  contemporary art with no outside, in which Joao Ribas has described the historical project of the contemporary[3] - the present that seeks to describe cultural production after post modernism  - as having become "not merely a temporal category but a discourse, a particular relationship to time itself"[4]: or, its simply an outcome of an aesthetics private over public value. It's no surprise that its difficult to talk about something that's so good at not being a 'thing,' but being as such; when everything's' moving and subjective to contingency, in the swirling contingency of the past and the present, it becomes increasingly difficult to talk about the history, and specifically not in general but from the collective. Further, fixed like this it is a metaphor that responds to an assumed neutrality; its invisibility.

[3] And perhaps, goes on Ribas, "...we are so concerned with contemporary because we have failed to reconcile finitude. That is, to conceive of a future beyond ecological disaster, technological singularity, or terror-filled millennarianism?" (Joao Ribas, 2011, '3/10 - What to do with the contemporary?' Ten Fundemental Questions of Curating, Mousse Publishing

[4] Ribas, Ibid

[5] replaced first by the properly neoliberal IMF, and Private-public partnerships of 3rd the way, then after the great 2008 re-re-distribution of wealth, and power to the supra-national corporations in a version of new feudalism

Just for a minute - what even is neoliberalism? Perhaps a useful self-propagating ambiguity that includes:

1) C20th laissez-faire liberal politics

2) free-market economics,

3) government withdrawal.[5] 

 Subsequently it could then be said to be

4) the ideological surface onto which all things can be placed once given a function in the market - data-bases, slickly fluid imagery appears in spite of its origin, and re-visualisations of re-abstractions (like the patterns of brain) -  and so

5) an aesthetics birthed from the concrete reality of these policies  stuck onto the world as an augmentation or the computer-generated realism, of contemporary art, for example. This is an aesthetic and conceptual surface, where the real and local is abstracted globally and universally.

N...o L...m is being right there between 2 disco balls endlessly refracting, fracturing and shifting all that is smeared on their surface, and trying to see the reflecting light reflected by the other.

One is is the past; the other the forestalled, circular time of a neoliberal present. Images and narratives of history reflecting and distorting on the shifty, self-interested, or just paranoid surface of the present.

The first glitter ball is history - a narrative able to change and become re-read through genealogies, weaving threads of cultural studies and postcolonialism '(et al. and etc.).'  

The second, (the present). A generic and flat, yet multi faceted surface that demands compliance without a historically locatable or fixed definition of itself. Debt absorbs the present as collateral to be used against the future just as the second's mirrors undo the reflections of the first.

The shifty past is endlessly opened out into an equally shifty political present - there seems no where to move except sideways.

So the second sphere's time is horizontal. It's time without time: or better, it's ignoring its watch. To be sure, disabling hegemonic narratives to maintain their hold over history is no bad thing, but at a point where we no longer have an outside perspective - in time or space - how can this expanded past move towards investing in actual, collective or amorphous futures which also avoid recuperation?[6]

[6] Éve Chiapello and Luc Boltanksi's 'A New Sprit of Capitalism' is often cited here: their argument being, similarly to Hardt, that, esthetic struggles, or 'artistic critque' - for freedom or liberty for example - were met after the upheavals of the 1960s but increasingly at the expense of the more concrete demands of 'social critique' i.e. better labour conditions. Why this is important here is that if capitalism "has always relied on critiques of the status quo to alert it to dangers in any untrammelled development of its current forms, and to discover the antidotes required to neutralize opposition" (Sebastian Budgen, New Left Review 1, Jan/Feb 2000 [online]) then the antidotes to artistic critique - liberty combined with its image, become increasingly indistinguishable from the neoliberal answers in offer response and anticipation. C.f. the share economy).

Looking to the past we see a never-ending task - to open up stories that were once closed down. But to try to look towards a common future through the present it looks like the re-reflected rays of the disco balls glint in every direction. As I try to catch the reflection of one in the other it moves on instantly. Viewed from one angle it's the relativism of Post Modernity - of actually living the fractal possibility of mythology beyond our capacity to quantify it. We are given the urgency of actual futures (ecological, economic, nofuture), but without seemingly the means by which to make sense of them, the glitter-reflections bounce quicker than you could ever catch them.

It's a problem with placing neoliberalism in a linear history (moving outside of it) as much as it's a problem of what the future holds.

From this perspective, whichever way we look - to the archives and history or the utopias and strategic pragmatism of politics - we are trapped between neoliberalism's glittery surfaces and the fragmentary logic of post-modernity that birthed it: an absolute inside. The scale of the present in all its contingency, connectivity and complicity seems to endlessly co-opt us into an irrevocable stalemate with the present organisational situation of post-state capitalism.

Part 2

An alternative perspective: outside by creating an inside to the inside

A different metaphor then.

Once, cyclical time could be resolved from the circular motion of the spinning wheel into the linearity of a thread: turning "the cloudy mass of fibre into lines with which the world can be tied together [...] Strands a few inches long twine together into a thread or yarn that can go forever" (Rebecca Solnit, 2013, p131).

Mastering time in this way by telling a story "that is like a thread that cannot be cut" (spinning a yarn), is what saved Scheherazade. Spinning more and more characters, fragments and incidents into the unbreakable narrative she recounts to the King in One Thousand and One Nights, she postpones her own death. But today we don't postpone death by the tales we tell, but occupy a stasis that undoes this unfolding. Scheherazade made an outside, for a time at least. But this ultimately made her Queen, so this ongoing story again leads back to the absolute inside we find ourselves in. As well as offering the seemingly endless story of cyclical time, the economic and ecological realities of present are at the same time the threat to it. Stuck spinning this yarn, we just keep spinning back into a cloudy mass of an uncertain present.

So, for Solnit, at the other end of this story is neither an ever-written thread spun by a "fairytale heroine", nor the powers she avoids - but a yarn un-spun for a different purpose.

Penelope adds layers to time. Layers which entered during the day at one end of a funeral garment woven for her father-in-law, and are drawn out again in a single and specific thread from the organised whole at night. As she undoes the work of the day, she creates an inside to keep her 'suitors' at bay.

Again, it is not fidelity to or against potential suitors that Solnit emphasises here, but the crafting of time against an invasive present. A pocket inside the present that temporarily creates an outside from what it seems to implore.

These two stories then present us with a different sort of space and time. One layering and tangling in an ever changing series of spinnings, unspinnings, unpicking - an ambiguously knotted thing: fixed, hard and complex in places, slipping, shifting and sickened in others. Its uncertain how many threads and strands are pulled together, but that they draw out and weave together time towards possible futures.

On top of this, each thread drawn out complexified and meandered Penelope and Scheherazade's stories that bit further: it presents an opportunity for history that is not necessarily static, horizontal, nor circular, nor linear - but maybe collective, granular and asynchronous yet embodied and addressable in its messy togetherness.

Part 3


Sharon Hayes, Parole

If we want a different version of history, maybe we can look through artist Sharon Hayes' knotty layers of history, and the present-time of speech or performance — more like the individual speech of parole, rather than the systematic authority of language. history, always "embedded in an amorphous 'we'"[7] that points to a similar potentiality. In her four-channel video work Parole, the sound technician protagonist moves between an apartment, a studio and the street. She records archival cassette of the C20th, water boiling on the stove, her sleeping breath, a series of interlocutors who read across a desk from letters and descriptions of performances...

[7]  Julia Bryan-Wilson, 2015, 'Sharon Hayes Sounds Off', Afterall #38, Spring 2015 p25

"Moving from inside to outside with headphones on and a microphone in hand, the silent technician walks the streets capturing not only passers-by and children amusing themselves, but also eruptions of public language, including Hayes performing one of her 'love addresses' in Trafalgar Square, London." (p20).

Taking form as a four-channel, four-sided video and sound installation that closely maps the gallery space, this incoherent space of sound and image ensures a viewer is only ever able to get a partial perspective. Described by writer Julia Bryan-Wilson - with video's political content and its combined like this with its equally embodied articulation as an artwork - not only does "the piece importantly foreground[s] a queer, non-conforming body'played by artist and performer Becca Blackwell, the videos' lead, "[w]ith her short curly hair and button-down-shirt is presented as gender-ambiguous: butch lesbian maybe, masculine woman maybe, trans maybe, maybe some other gender(s) that have not been yet consolidated into a label."[8] 

[8] As she points out in her article's original footnote, Bryan-Wilson takes care to distinguish Becca Blackwell from the character portrayed in the video: "I use the female pronoun to refer to the character, despite the gender-ambiguity of the figure, in part because Hayes used the female pronoun when casting this role" (Bryan-Wilson, Ibid, p19).

But as the protagonist collects and preserves these ephemeral histories, incorporating snippets of Hayes's 'love address' in public and a lecture by Lauren Berlant on sentimentality. Parole "is not only a layering of image, theory and history "in which past and present are superimposed"[9] but creates, as an artwork and art practice, a physical space for this folding to take place itself.

[9] Bryan-Wilson Ibid, 20


Sharon Hayes - Ricerche: three

For art historian and writer Catherine Grant writing on Hayes' work too, this permanently provisional folding and layering of history, rather than its accretion or sedimentation,  in the case, of re-visited existing and historical protest placards such as "organise or starve", "we are innocent" or "I AM A MAN" during her performance of 'In The Near Future' is central to its potential for such un-finalised subjectivities.[10]  

[10] http://shaze.info/#

In Grant's case this construction of provisional and contingent identification is mirrored in the figure of the Fan. Once regarded as fanatic (who exceeded an aesthetic interpretation pathologically), Grant suggests the fan now be understood as in Henry Jenkin's terms; the 'rogue reader', someone who's reading constructs further, unplanned, meaning such as the fan fiction, day-dream or pastiche.[11]

[11]  'As Grant describes, the rogue reader in Jenkin's terms is a "re-writer of the text that has inspired the fan's desire in a way that radically reforms the fan object." Catherine Grant, 2011, Fans of Feminsim: Re-­‐writing Histories of Second-­ wave Feminism in Contemporary Art, in: Oxford Art Journal, vol. 34, issue 2, 2011, pp 265-­‐286.)

The fan becomes then, like Hayes' characters (herself included, while not always incorporating her voice) someone who in compacting devotion and desire towards the 'fan object' with the formation or articulation of their own identity can both be lead by a historical or cultural narrative, whilst each writing their own multiple experiences and versions of its meaning into it. This collapse of what is present and what is not, or imagined, for Grant this is another more, individualised, means by which to cross through and against a generational turn-over of time — and against what is lost between generations;  of producing the histories that occur between those very generational relations.

Similarly, for Bryan-Wilson, Hayes' film 'Ricerche: three' (2013) articulates this becoming through vocalisation. It places the act and venue of articulation (who speaks for who?) at the foreground, within the present.

Set in the historic Mount Holyoke college in Massachusetts, Hayes revisits Pasolini's 1963 film 'love meetings' in which he canvassed Italians from across Italy on 'the sexual problem' (the changes in national mores in the midst of social and economic transformation).

In the film Hayes' poses the same guise to an undefined group of students of the all-women college.[12] Silent for the first minute, the film removes Hayes' voice, instead asserting her perspective at the level of form - decisions made about editing, framing and what and how to ask: in so doing Hayes opens up the film to the shared residence to categorisation, which less a crisis of epistemology, more "a refusal to name." When Hayes asks a question, unthinkable in 1964 - "How many genders do you find on campus?" a student retorts:

[12] A place which, in the past, people saw as  "as a hot-bed of lesbian activity/sex/sexuality" Sharon Hayes, Artist notes: http://www.tanyaleighton.com/index.php?pageId=547&l=en) which has become one of many sites of, and "touchstones for female-to-male trans politics and debates about gender exclusion." (Bryan-Wilson Ibid. 25)

"I wouldn't even know how to tell you."

These are all specific histories and moments, but occurring like this through a public or public space of the present (including the present of the artwork, equally lived as it was made), by their being super-imposed on other time-scales representations and characters, their construction and therefore possible undoing reveals a persistent and unresolvable flashpoint in language, "what to call things, how to call oneself, how to talk from an 'I' that is [always] embedded in an amorphous 'we.'"[13]

[13] Bryan-Wilson, Ibid, 25

Sharon Hayes' work has presented something more concrete here, yet the relationship in her work between Love, politics and history may be more metaphorically functional than simply a vision of contestation. This deliberate folded tangle of histories are constantly shifting yet never detachable or universalised, nor ever totally (or even ever at all outside of the groups it matters to) visible or audible. It seems already entirely at odds with the two glitter balls confusion of history in a neoliberal-ised present. The knots, strands and complications of an un-ordered/authorised history hold and bind themselves against and to the present.

What the metaphor of a non-linear but historically-placed time has become, as Hayes might show us,  is anything but uncertainty. Perhaps the outside that is created by the provisional and pragmatic insides of contestable and unfixed histories can only be constituted by and between those acting for it.

This is not then a metaphor for history, but one example of an 'outside' created by a particularised inside, by an I of a we. As they are spoken, these communities formed by reaching inside to a historical or material reservoir, suggests re-animation and re-speaking; a futurity, and maybe also, a moment of metaphorical traction.


(Part of a series of 7 working metaphors)

Thank you to Will, Cat, Jess + Alex for your help in getting this together.