In a Bad Time: On Art Strikes and Auto-Destructive Art

I.

Gustav Metzger has died at age 90.

The inventor of auto-destructive art (ADA)—“public art for industrial societies,” composite objects and situations whose elements admix and sooner or later degrade or combust, conceived as “an attack on capitalist values and the drive to nuclear annihilation”(2): reverently Dadaist, a kind of homeopathic shock dosage of destruction which might render industrial-capitalist society’s death wish more visible and therefore more subject to contrary action—and a founding member of the Committee of 100, Metzger was committed in protest of war-industrial depredations of nature and of the art world’s subservience to capital and the state, “which needs art as a cosmetic cloak to its horrifying reality.” (3)

The “Auto-Destructive Art” manifestoes (1959/60) are memorably choppy and brief.

Metzger executed numerous auto-destructive artworks, though he emphasized in a 1965 lecture to the Architectural Association that ADA formed the basis of “a theory of art that is […] at least ten years more advanced than practice,”(4) and the works he pulled off in the 1960s are more like précis, a set of DIY etudes. In the space between theory and practice Metzger produced works and actions that serve as propositional glimpses into the irruptive forces that the spectacular images of the present sublimate.

In his notes and lectures I notice a recurring, implicit problematic, which ADA is torqued to address. It is that the expansiveness of production has become spectralized: ruin is done for profit so that its (supposed) clean-up can be done for profit and so on ad infinitum; systematic creation and destruction accelerate to such a degree that their oscillations become numbing, soporific.

In this situation of constant distractions and diversions of energy and consciousness, Metzger wished to make “large-scale public sculptures at prominent sites” in order to “initiate a series of controversies that can become a kind of mass-therapy as well as educational programme.” (5)

The next-level large-scale ADA proposed in the manifestoes survives today in the form of excellent plans:

The… construction is to be about 18 feet high with a base about 24 ft, by 18 ft… It consists of mild steel 118 inch thick. The structure consists of three slabs. These highly polished forms exposed to an industrial atmosphere would start to corrode. The process continues until the structure gets weakened by the loss of material. In about ten years time most of the construction will have disintegrated. The remaining girder will then be removed and the site cleared. This is a fairly simple form of auto-destructive art…

[The next] sculpture consists of five walls or screens, each about 30 feet in height and 40 feet long and 2 feet deep. They are arranged about 25 feet apart and staggered in plan. I envisage these in a central area between a group of three very large densely populated blocks of flats in a country setting. Each wall is composed of 10,000 uniform elements. These could be made of stainless steel, glass or plastics. The elements in one of the walls could be square or rectangular and in another wall they could be hexagonal. The principle of the action of this work is that each element is ejected until finally after a period of ten years, the wall ceases to exist I propose the use of a digital computer that will control the movement of this work. This would be housed underground in the centre of the sculpture complex…

The third project I would like you to consider is in the shape of a 30 ft cube. The shell of the cube is in steel with a non-reflective surface. The interior of the cube is completely packed with complex, rather expensive, electronic equipment. This equipment is programmed to undergo a series of breakdowns and self- devouring activities. This goes on for a number of years – but there is no visible trace of this activity. It is only when the entire interior has been wrecked that the steel shell is pierced from within. Gradually, layer after layer of the steel structure is disintegrated by complex electrical, chemical and mechanical forces. The shell bursts open in different parts revealing the wreckage of the internal structure through the ever changing forms of the cube. Finally, all that remains is a pile of rubble. This sculpture should be at a site around which there is considerable traffic. (6)

If executed these projects would have been expensive, in stark conflict with the hypercommercialization of public space begun in earnest post-war, and all but unassimilable for the clipped attention span nurtured by spectacular social life. The plans are real (Metzger was not a conceptualist), but it does seem as if he was also demonstrating the limits of what was achievable under the particular artificial scarcities of his day, and demonstrating what real artistic ambitions to supersede them looked like.

“Auto-destructive art […] is an attempt to deal rationally with a society that appears to be lunatic,” he wrote in his 1965 lecture. “It is concerned with values of art but is conscious of the fact that to save society men must act beyond their professional disciplines, in fact, must use their professions to change society. To go on limiting oneself to achievement strictly within the rules of a profession laid down by a society that is on the point of collapse, is, to me, a betrayal.” (7)

II.

As to that, Metzger called for an “art strike” for the years 1977-80, with the intention of setting into motion a divestment from the art-world economy to allow, or force, a redistribution of time, money and other resources away from institutions and back into the hands of artists.

As a plan, it seems so ideologically pure—new rules hatching from revolution’s egg—that at first I assumed it was largely tactical. Artists under capitalism, fighting for scraps and originality, inclined to an ardent individualism, and moreover prone to recuperating their own refusals (a bind that concerned the Situationist International), would be unlikely to form critical mass. Thus the strike’s failure raises questions about artists’ class solidarities and furthers the dissolution of ideologically maintained boundaries between art and life.

But Metzger was a true believer, and not conniving to bait artists into betraying their complicity with capital. Rather, his call to strike is in part an extension of the sanity-enforcing renunciatory aspects of ADA:

The artist does not want to give his work to a society as foul as this one. So auto-destructive art becomes a kind of boycott. The artist refuses to embody his finest values in permanent works—to be bought, enjoyed, and appropriated by the class whom he detests—and who is largely responsible for the catastrophe in which we exist. (8)

There’s a practical, emergency-response dimension to the strike, too. Metzger writes of the threat of nuclear annihilation: “It is impossible to adapt to modern war: it is necessary to control it.” (9) By actually exercising control of the things that one can control in the time in which one lives, a basis is built for growing beyond one’s immediate domains and connecting with others in society engaged in related work.

The strike happened; Metzger participated, but from what I can gather no one else did. (10)

III.

What is common between Auto-Destructive Art and Metzger’s art strike proposition is their deployment of time as a destabilizing element, both cavity and protrusion.

It is a tenet of physics that the universe moves from order to disorder, and it is this movement that I experience as time. Call it “physical time.”

In a technologically controlled society such time is both compartmentalized and obscured. Guy Debord argued that time is the ultimate commodity in an integrated spectacle. Time, ineffable and of infinite potential measurements, becomes uniform, generic, and immobile: “The irreversible time of production is first of all the measure of commodities. Therefore the time officially affirmed over the entire expanse of the globe as the general time of society refers only to the specialized interests which constitute it and is no more than a particular time.” (11)

And “intellectual property”, that ultimate neoliberal commodity, is sutured like a cross-feed between production and being, between doing and reification. For the purposes of intellectual property there is no “meantime” between these states; such a commodity exists immanently within its material conditions, (over)determining them.

Gustav Metzger’s move, in both art and strike, is to focus physical time’s disordering effects on the interface between art and ideology like sunlight through a magnifying glass: to deploy time, in its always-already-commodified dimension, for nonproductive means and by so doing really push it into the red, in effect to alienate one’s self from the forces behind one’s alienation. To refuse time-as-commodity in this way involves refusing to inhabit the roles that have been integrated into it.

IV.

On this, Stewart Home is perceptive. He writes:

By refusing to produce art, Metzger was refusing the role of an artist. This single gesture demonstrated the fallacy of popular ideas about artists as individuals possessed by an uncontrollable creative urge. It also showed that it was possible to break with the privileged positions certain militants had come to occupy within capitalist society. Metzger realised what Vaneigem and various other spectro-situationists could only partially theorise—the rejection of roles—and for this alone he will not be forgotten. (12)

Home followed the implications of his reading of Metzger’s strike by calling one for the years 1990-93 in collaboration with the PRAXIS group and Art Strike Action Committees in Iowa, San Francisco and elsewhere. This one was more successful, with not one but three actual participants, and a whole mountain of propaganda and critique generated besides, by turns acidly ironic and totally sincere, much of which is well worth marinating in.

Art Strike 1990-93’s own inaugural propaganda contrasts its intentions with Metzger’s:

Our purpose is not to destroy those institutions which might be perceived as having a negative effect on artistic production. Instead, we intend to question the role of the artist itself and its relation to the dynamics of power within our specific culture. (13)

And in further contrast to Metzger’s strike, Art Strike 1990-93 (which was branded loudly as such, and thus with exo-Dadaist aplomb exhibits and exposes its own inevitable artifacts as the mechanisms for its reification and recuperation back into the semantic potentials of capital) was explicitly billed as a tactic:

The importance of the Art Strike lies not in its feasibility but in the possibilities it opens up for intensifying the class war. The Art Strike addresses a series of issues: most important amongst these is the fact that the socially imposed hierarchy of the arts can be actively and aggressively challenged. The organisers of the Art Strike have quite consciously exploited the fact that within this society what is simulated tends to become real. (14)

This passage strikes me as a cogent merging of Situationist infiltration-speak and more overtly protest-minded rhetoric. Yet the involuted, heavily citational aspect of Art Strike 1990-1993 begins to seem vain, obsessive, overfinessed. I say this partly because, in 2017, irony feels like it’s becoming exhausted for ignoble causes, and the effort of deciphering endless varietals of ironic recursion suspended in solution on the internet—itself a totally serious and unfunny surveillance apparatus—does not, to me at least, feel much like work in search of radical potentials.

But then, it was the 1990s: Hirst, Koons, etc. were setting new standards towards/against which anticapitalist praxis had to develop. An ironic, confrontational yet self-dissolving rhetoric of divestment which also amps up the stakes of what it means to “be an artist” seems fitting, in context; if ever there was a kairos moment to infiltrate and inflate the ironic mode, it was probably the turn of the 90s.

San Francisco Art Strike Action Committee member Stephen Perkins uses this language of infiltration to describe Home’s intentions:

One of Stewart’s projects was to take this extreme position, and then to set up situations where he could insert it into the canon. So he was playing a historical game as well, whatever he might say; and I don’t think he’d deny it either… You do this radical thing out on the edge, and then you help to coax it into the center, so that then the canon makers, the art historians are forced to deal with it. (15)

But when is infiltration (“deal with it”) just a shortcut to recuperation (“here you go”)?

It is this problem that Art Strike 1990-93 stages most effectively. Recuperative reuptake of antiestablishment action can be studied more closely if the action contains a tactical control-measure of allowance to forces of recuperation, and if said action prepares its participants to observe the recuperation and note well what happens. It’s not so much acceleration as it is inflation, magnification, for the benefit of future observers. This is, of course, pretty risky.

I’m reminded of Michele Bernstein’s essay on Pinot-Gallizio, which ends:

We have now reached a stage of experimentation with new collective constructions and new synthesis, and there is no longer any point in combating the values of the old world by a neo-Dadaist refusal. Whether the values be ideological, artistic, or even financial, the proper thing is to unleash inflation everywhere. (16)

I interpret Bernstein’s “inflation” as co-opting spectacular capitalist society’s tricks and staging them at critical points of exaggeration, not to refuse or disable the spectacle but to mirror it clearly enough, from enough creative angles, that some new image of freedom might be forged in the parallax.

That her 1958 essay is about a painter who abandoned normative artistic modes for industrial processes is instructive: one year later, former painter Gustav Metzger published the first Auto-Destructive Art manifesto, arguing for “collaboration with scientists, engineers” towards work that “can be machine produced and factory assembled”, work which “mirrors the compulsive perfectionism of arms manufacture” (17) and whose audience was (is) a post-industrial society built on an economic order whose inflationary tendency is towards nuclear war.

V.

Fire has never changed: another lay-physics gem.

Does time change? What could an art strike mean today?

A J20 art strike was called to protest Donald Trump’s inauguration. Its model was the 1970 New York Artist’s Strike (see note 10). Many artists signed on. I don’t know which, if any, galleries and institutions closed doors or otherwise altered their business models for the day.

I know a lot of people were into it on social media.

I don’t know if “clicktivism” can be anticapitalist.

And the fact that it was called only for a single day’s disruption seems telling. (The trap is now disruptiveness itself, its venture-capitalist elitism. This is crazy-making.)

Jonathan Crary writes in 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep:

Neoliberal economy time… [is] a temporal alignment of the individual with the functioning of markets… [which] has made irrelevant distinctions between work and non-work time…. Under these conditions, the relentless financialization of previously autonomous spheres of social activity continues unchecked. (18)

Yes. We are suspended in a type of life that is neither activity nor rest, like Samuel Beckett’s Lost Ones, whose vision is extinguished by a constant oscillation of interior light from bright to dim.

And in the realm of “information” the feeling is one of constantly searching for something that either became true five minutes ago or will be true five minutes from now. Right now is just a hinge to get to what else.

Bruce Russell, who I’ll write about in the next column, nicely observes in his dissertation “What true project has been lost?”: Towards a social ontology of improvised sound work that “there is no experience of time to compare with that spent looking for something.” (19)

But any search can become dissociated and aimless, or usurped by algorithm if I’m not paying attention.

In Russell’s case, he’s talking about an actual, non-Google search, like one for your car keys, or for ways to improvise while in performance: i.e. the search for what is now happening, in real time, in the immanent present tense—not in an inchoate future tense of screen-wandering for stopgap coping measures for ambient dread and ennui.

In Theses on the Philosophy of History, Walter Benjamin theorizes such an immanent present tense. In contrast with historicism which posits a general, uniform, linear, essentially reliable time in whose hollows history is built up brick by brick, historical materialism insists that “history is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous, empty time, but time filled by the present of the now [Jetztzeit].” (20) This isn’t the normative present tense, but rather the mythical nunc stans, a “Messianic cessation of happening” which is here deployed as a political position:

A historical materialist cannot do without the notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time stands still and has come to a stop. For this notion defines the present in which he himself is writing history. […] Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well. […] He stops telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary. Instead, he grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one. Thus he establishes a conception of the present as the “time of the now” which is shot through with chips of Messianic time. (21)

The point of thinking this way about time is liberation from inevitability, “to wrest tradition away from the conformism that is about to overpower it” (22) and realize the sense of freedom required to make a “leap in the open air of history.” (23)

I think of Metzger’s use of combustive elements as a glimpse into what is profoundly common across all eras: acid, clay, combustion, corrosion, elasticity, heat, pressure, sound, stress, vibration, wood; balance, contraction, flight reflex, pulse rate, scent, shock, suspension, touch… If anything can supersede our present catastrophe, it is biology itself, matter itself collapsing and transforming.

“Society is deteriorating. So is the sculpture,” Metzger told the Architecture Association.

What resounds so clearly inside these deteriorations is our resemblance to each other, the similar fears and desires. In emergency, the roles we play appear as atoms in the crucible, and the “open air of history” becomes the element we want to meet in. Destruction, like creation, is not a quantity but a relation.

 

________________

 

Notes

  1. Scans from Metzger, Gustav et al. Damaged Nature, Auto-Destructive Art (coracle @ workfortheeyetodo, 1996).
  1. Ibid, 59-60.
  1. Metzger, Gustav. “Art Strike 1977-1980”. http://www.thing.de/projekte/7:9%23/y_Metzger+s_Art_Strike.html
  1. Ibid, 25.
  1. Ibid, 32.
  1. Ibid, 45-47.
  1. Ibid, 27.
  1. Ibid, 49.
  1. Ibid, 50.
  1. The 1970 New York Artist’s Strike (an obvious omission in this essay) seems to have followed from principles which implicitly reinforce the interdependence of art and state, partly by insisting that “museum directors, staff, and visitors take responsibility for the crisis” either by closing, or freely opening their institution’s doors for visitors to meet with artists and be radicalized. This is on-point, because its subject is the power of institutions, but in my view it does not critically address the role of the artist in ways relevant to this essay. In the interests of space and focus I omit a discussion of the strike and direct the reader to this essay for more.
  1. Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle, (translation by Greg Adargo, Black and Red, 1977) https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/debord/society.htm
  1. Home, Stewart. The Assault on Culture (Aporia Press and Unpopular Books, 1998), 64.
  1. Mannox, James (ed.). The Art Strike Papers (AK Press, 1991). Archived at http://www.spunk.org/texts/writers/shome/sp000457.htm#2.1
  1. Ibid.
  1. Perkins, Stephen. https://vimeo.com/65558974
  1. Bernstein, Michele. “In Praise of Pino-Gallizio”, from Guy Debord and the Situationist International (MIT Press, 2002), 72.
  1. Metzger, G. Ibid, 59.
  1. Crary, Jonathan. 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (Verso Press, 2013), 74.
  1. Russell, Bruce. What true project has been lost?: Towards a social ontology of improvised sound work (RMIT, 2016), 49.
  1. Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: essays and reflections (Schocken Books, 1968), 261.
  1. Ibid, 262-263.
  1. Ibid, 255.
  1. Ibid, 261.
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