April 04, 2011

Shop Talk Respondent: Jasper Bernes

Stephanie Syjuco, Shadowshop, 2010–11; photo: Dominic Santos

On Thursday March 24 Open Space and Art Practical hosted the first of three conversations organized loosely around issues and themes raised by Stephanie Syjuco’s multiartist project Shadowshop, on view now. Today we present four responses to that first evening. Do join us for Shop Talk round two, on Thursday, April 14. Please welcome poet Erika Staiti.

I think I’ve been invited to comment on last Thursday’s panel on Shadowshop in part because I spend a lot of time thinking about value and money, labor and exploitation, and maybe also because I have a longstanding interest in works of art that put their own value — economic or otherwise — into question, artworks that attempt to either overcome their own bewitchment by economic value or demonstrate its utter contingency. There is, as many readers will know, a long history of this kind of thing, whether it’s Marcel Duchamp issuing bond notes to finance his own roulette excursions, or Maria Eichhorn incorporating herself as a hermetically sealed joint stock company, or Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway designing the Black Shoals Stock Market Planetarium, which translates the economic transactions of the economy’s commanding heights — probably as close a thing to the starry destiny as one can find in our world — into visual display. Sometimes it seems as if money is the thing art is most about. Or put differently, I have often thought that money is the one medium in which all artists work. It makes sense to place Shadowshop in this tradition.

In thinking over Thursday’s presentation and the ensuing discussion, I find myself returning to Megan Brian’s amusing description of the pragmatic and bureaucratic hurdles she faced in preparing Shadowshop for display. As Brian tells it, merely endowing the many objects in the shop with the vaunted name of “art” would have entailed an extensive and laborious process of registry for each and every item, one far beyond the capacities of the museum, whereas terming the objects “wares” meant a comparatively simple administrative protocol. But I was surprised, in the discussion afterward, how many of those present appeared to treat the distinction between “art” and “wares” as a substantive (or more than merely formal) one. I had thought such debates good and dead, and that, as a result, the now-familiar act of rending the veil between haloed objets d’art and the fallen world of merch would bring with it less of a charge. But perhaps I’m misinformed.

I’m still puzzling over the meanings given to the “alternative” and “autonomy” in Christian Frock’s talk (based upon her article in Art Practical). She hits upon a simple, though often-overlooked point — namely, that the supposed freedom of the artwork rests upon all kinds of unfreedom; that artistic autonomy and creative freedom are vouchsafed by various forms of market-value and patronage. Freedom from the cruel whims and caprices of the market is, in this view, given by the market, not taken from it.  But it is by no means certain, as Frock seems to conclude, that this is the only way creative autonomy can be had, that is, by way of concessions to the market, or complicity with capitalism, as Stephanie Syjuco puts it in the materials for Shoptalk.

And so, while “alternative autonomy” might seem like a strangely tautological phrase at first glance, I think Frock actually means it as oxymoronic: in other words, not the uncomfortable autonomy of dirty gutter-punks who eat garbage (and occasionally light it on fire), but that other autonomy, the autonomy of software designers and entrepreneurs, not-so-fully-autonomous autonomy. Indeed, while Frock suggests that we might “explore alternative entrepreneurial methods for fiscal independence … and apply business tactics to conceptual endeavors,” those new business tactics have themselves been developed through an intense study of both the apparently autonomous art world and the business culture, as books like Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool and Luc Boltanski/Eve Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism point out. I’m truly struck by the way in which a key insight in Boltanski/Chiapello is borne out by Frock’s ideas. For them, the present form of capitalism is ruled by a certain logic — they describe it as connexionist — where one’s possession or non-possession of certain attributes (flexibility, enthusiasm, sensitivity, independence, ability to collaborate) go some way in determining one’s success. In their account, this mode of capitalism developed in response to the cultural critique of the 1960s and after (present most explicitly in the arts), which took aim at the rigid, emotionless, intolerant, and stultifying world in which people operated then.

So, it may be that Frock has less to learn from today’s business tactics than she thinks. In fact, what’s striking to me is how eminently practical (even commonsensical) her advice is. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that its mottos (diversification, collaboration, self-organization) bear some resemblance to the best sellers one might find in the Business & Investing section of bookstores, books like Escape from Cubicle Nation, or The 4-Hour Workweek, or 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

I’ll conclude with a long quote from The New Spirit of Capitalism, which, I think, draws out the issues here. Next time, if there’s space, I want to sketch out some alternatives to alternative autonomy:

Anything can attain the status of a project, including ventures hostile to capitalism. Describing every accomplishment with a nominal grammar that is the grammar of project erases the differences between a capitalist project and a humdrum creation (a Sunday club). Capitalism and anti-capitalist critique alike are masked. Utterly different things can be assimilated to the term ‘project’; opening a new factory, closing one, carrying out a re-engineering project, putting on a play. Each of them is a project, and they all involve the same heroism. This is one of the ways that the projective city can win over forces hostile to capitalism: by proposing a grammar that transcends it, which they in turn will use to describe their own activity while remaining oblivious of the fact that capitalism, too, can slip into it. (111)

Jasper Bernes is the author of Starsdown (ingirumimusnocteetconsumimurigni, 2007). He is finishing up a PhD in the Department of English at UC Berkeley.

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