Dossier | Pre-demolition Art as a Staging of Power-free Relations | esse arts + opinions

Dossier | Pre-demolition Art as a Staging of Power-free Relations

  • Sara Tilley, Sarah Smalik & Jamie Tea, Infestation, installation & performance, événement phantom wing event, 2013. Photo : © Diane + Mike photography
  • Stephen Mueller, performance, événement Phantom Wing event, 2013. Photo : © Caitlind Brown

Pre-demolition Art as a Staging of Power-free Relations
By Andrea Williamson

There are several ways that artists can attempt effective contraventions to dominant powers in today’s capitalist world. One context in which such tactics are currently playing out is emerging artists-curators engendering installations, by invitation of developers, in buildings slated for demolition. Such projects have precedence in Gordon Matta-Clark’s “building cuts” and the Market Estate Project in London (1) where artists find unconventional public venues and ample space for experimentation. The two projects discussed here are unique both in the attention they’ve garnered within and without art circles and in their timely responses to the social consequences gentrification is currently imposing on a growing population.

Due to media attention and the widespread appeal of WRECK CITY, (2) a pre-demolition exhibition in April 2013 that spanned a residential block in Calgary, its concept was swept up by cSPACE, a civic organization that develops workspaces for artists. cSPACE is currently directing a massive renovation project transforming King Edward School, a beautiful sandstone structure built in 1912, into a multi-use arts hub reminiscent of the Artscape projects in Toronto. Just months after spending countless hours building WRECK CITY on a shoestring budget, four of the curators (Matthew Mark Bourree, Caitlind r.c. Brown, Jennifer Crighton, and Shawn Mankowske) agreed to do it again, this time adding curator Natalie MacLean and naming the project Phantom Wing as a marker of the presence/absence attributed to the school’s condemned 1960s addition.

As with many “arts incubator” phases of redevelopment, the WRECK CITY and Phantom Wing projects presented irrefutable benefits to both developers and artists, creating a symbiotic relationship though it served mutually exclusive interests.

Developers recognize that these periods of incubation generate buzz and critical mass leading to future marketability. This is the main point of contention for critics of the projects who view the artists and curators involved as thriving off and necessitating rampant renovation, or worse, advertising for it. This is an all-too-easy criticism of resourceful, opportunity-starved artists recuperating their own critical realm out of an inevitable situation. Such criticisms also indicate a cynical attitude towards the critical function and epiphenomenality of art — perhaps rightly so.

For the artists, access to spaces facing destruction makes available possibilities of architectural alterations not viable in sustained/sustaining structures while presenting art outside traditional gallery contexts. Additionally, the artists find political agency by occupying and making visible the sometimes abrupt transition from low-rent historical buildings to high-rent condos, resulting in middle- and upper-class neighbourhoods.

The curators of Phantom Wing collectively withdrew from overt alignments with social messages in their projects; instead, putting faith in the legibility and independence of the art itself and the presence and visibility of artists working in proximity to critical issues. This stalwart reticence on their part towards declarative polemicized politics raises the question of whether an explicit vocalization of the issues involved in redevelopment effectively changes its nature and of what art’s critical function in this situation can be.

Transgressive art is a slight step beyond more direct forms of protest: it attempts to subvert the status quo on the level of ideology, shocking us into an awareness of our limits. But today, all forms of labour, including affective labour, are turned into sources of surplus value, making these limits simply new frontiers for economic growth. (3) As Steven Shaviro writes in a recent article on accelerationist (4) aesthetics: “far from being subversive or oppositional, transgression is the actual motor of capitalist expansion today: the way that it renews itself in orgies of ‘creative destruction.’” (5) When there is no alternative to capitalism’s recuperation of profit, transgression equals innovation.

If this accelerationist articulation, let alone the subversive overturning of normative forces, does little in the way of forming a strategy for change, we must turn elsewhere for our impetus rather than focus on the creative cities phenomenon, the recuperation of creative labour as capital, or ways to flip it upside-down. We can imagine a distance from the problem by looking to Ziarek’s notion of aphesis (release) or non-power.

In The Force of Art, Ziarek echoes Shaviro’s claim via Heidegger (6) that every material and non-material thing before us, from our Internet activities to raw dirt, is enframed as standing-reserve for future production. (7) In order for the avant-garde, which has historically been aligned with the acceptance and celebration of new technologies, to have a transformative effect on our productive enslavement or technicity, it must keep this technicity in question.

Approached by way of forcework, artworks take on social relevance without necessarily having to deal explicitly with or portray a social problematic, for their importance for praxis is not in thematic critique or even in formal subversiveness but rather on the level of force relations, where artworks not only intervene or interrupt but also recode relations. . . in terms of “nonpower” or the “power-free.” (8)

This notion of non-power is elucidated through poesis, “a transformative event that changes relations into an ‘unproductive’ modality of letting be.” (9) This has to do with art’s arbitrariness and what Shaviro calls a “necessary inefficacy.” To the extent that aesthetics admits its own defeat within subsumptive capitalism, he maintains it aligns itself with non-power, “which is something that works of transgression and negativity cannot hope to attain today.” (10)

Where critics of the Calgary pre-demolition projects claim that collaboration with development companies furthers the domination of technicity, I would argue that it opens up a critical space of questioning of power as well as proposing relationships with the intangible, or that which cannot be codified and transmitted in terms of power.

The initial and most prominent quality of art in pre-demolition spaces is the spectral. Artists immediately become aware of their role as archivists of what will soon disappear. This can be commodified as an affect of rarity, marketable like a flash mob or a one-time-only event. But, at the same time, it points to non-production, material degradation and obsolescence — regressive processes pitted against our culture of growth and virtual prosperity.

Artist and Phantom Wing participant Stephen Mueller’s performance involved a twenty-four hour walk around the building’s exterior without rest, his finger never lifting from its abrasive surface. This bodily registration of another, inanimate body effectuates an interrelated body map/landscape that is inscribed within the physical memory of the artist, producing a corporeal and private organization below the level of affect. The event exists in the silence of pure haptic, pre-linguistic experience, which is singular, irreproducible, and hermetic.

While productive in terms of private memory and perhaps some recuperative (marketable) affects of the artist’s radicalism, the piece encodes erasure of flesh and the building’s future while registering both an economy of loss and a non-codifiable experience.

Sarah Smalik, Sara Tilley, and Jamie Tea’s Infestation embodies the Pochinko clowning technique, developed in the 70s by Canadian Richard Pochinko, and its submersion of ego, exemplifying a different instance of reworking contemporary flows of power. The Pochinko technique stresses impulse, guttural directions, and free-association before structure in its formation of performance. In this case, the artists don rat costumes that signal a becoming-animal (11) that directs their behaviours and creates their habitat. They cite working through a “pack mentality” that “throws the self into upheaval and makes it reel.” (12) Here, the contagion, or transferable affect, is the selfless orientation towards a sacred beyond. Their imagined deity, having been given the name “GUT,” represents another turning to the unseen multiplicities of our bodies and withdrawal from productive power.

Linked to a disappearing site and context, existing posthumously only as affect and archive, it is understood that the force of art within these spaces is not object-based but relational as the works themselves get destroyed with the building. Through the dialectical experience of the artists’ presence/absence during the exhibition and its subsequent demolition, one comprehends for a brief moment the propositions of transformative affects: while some inevitably recuperate as future profit by signaling the presence of creative capital, others leave only a trace of spectral and phantom, existing beyond language and the individual and hence beyond commodification.

To gauge the developers’ intentions for the future King Edward School arts hub (were they motivated by their desire to provide a self-determining space for artists or by fiscal gain?), we could look at how their plans mimic or disregard the ideas put forth in the “phantom wing.” Evident in the artists’ activities is a repurposing of available materials and with it a re-evaluation of “waste.” The functional aesthetics of artist-participant Lane Shordee, who is building a waterfall from the roof of the school using flood-damaged materials, speak to the felt imperative to “live with one’s waste” and to be aware of all aspects of one’s productive value. (13) Shordee bemoans the lack of transparent architecture and practical incentives towards sustainable living and permaculture such as community gardens, trading posts, or regional shops on campus in the future plans.

By and large, the Phantom Wing project was co-opted too late: all of the architectural plans have been laid out for construction in March 2014. Many of the artists who wish to see alternative ecologies, inwardly sustainable environments, and a shift in focus from production to experience and “becoming,” realize their ineffectuality in this situation. As the public will witness with the establishment of the new King Edward School, the efforts of these artists and curators to advocate a more non-commodifiable experience was ultimately ineffective, but perhaps their ideas will become contagious.

NOTES
(1) Gordon Matta-Clark: Above and Below, David Zwirner, New York, April 2 to May 4, 2013.See www.marketestateproject.com/.
(2) Wreck City took place in the neighborhood of Kensington, Calgary, from April 19 to 27, 2013. See http://wreckcityproject.wordpress.com/.
(3) The author here echoes Steven Shaviro in his article “Accelerationist Aesthetics: Necessary Inefficiency in Times of Real Subsumption,” published in e-flux online journal #46, June 2013. See www.e-flux.com/journal/accelerationist-aesthetics-necessary-inefficiency....
(4) Accelerationism is a philosophy that tries to imagine the end state of all technological processes, in which we become robots or capitalism is given free reign until it destroys itself.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Heidegger’s notions of “enframing” and “standing-reserve” are explored in his essay The Question Concerning Technology, originally published in 1954.
(7) Krzysztof Ziarek, The Force of Art (California: Stanford University Press, 2004), 62.
(8) Ibid., 60.
(9) Ibid., 100.
(10) Steven Shaviro, “Accelerationist Aesthetics.”
(11) Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 232.
(12) Ibid., 240.
(13) Personal communication with the artist from September 9, 2013.

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