still85th of June 2015 at Formation Centre, TOVES

‘Decentering the Formations of Critique’
by Janus Høm
/ Formation Center @ TOVES

On the evening of the 5th of June 2015, Anna Frost organised an event in which three companies, made up of artists, were to present their products and business strategies. The presentations were followed by what the organiser called a “shark tank”; a blood thirsty panel interrogating the spokesmen; making them feel the shiver.

For this documentation of Formation Centre, I will focus on only one of these three companies: Brace Brace; a company producing and selling luxury emergency equipment – such as a gold plated buoyancy ring. So far, Brace Brace have produced one prototype as well as a promotional video for their company.

For Formation Centre, they had set up a small, symmetrical scene in the corner of TOVES; a meticulous arrangement consisting of two screens showing Brace Brace‘s promotional video, a mirror line in the shape of a Dragon tree – often found in corporate decor – and the two business owners across from each other, sitting in loung’y chairs. Here, nature is seen as the axis around which corporate exploitation revolves; and what type of nature? A “man-made” (anthroprocenic?), cost-effeciently, greenhouse – grown plant – one which is made to represent life in dead interiors of desks and cubicles.

With this composition as a backdrop, Brace Brace performed an oral presentation, which flowed between a poetry of nihilistic doom-saying and theoretical considerations towards an art different than the art of today.

Their slick, titillating video, true to the format of advertising, affectedly invited the consumer into acceptance of the impending catastrophe (visualised by a tsunami) and thus, why not then, also give in to our corrupted desires for extravagance and greed; two traits of society which generously assisted the “catastrophe” in the first place. In what way better can we imagine a recursive feedback of indifference?

The evening was a rare moment where an invested, well-composed performance was met with an equally invested response. This is documentation is a reaction to the strategic (artistically/business-wise) ambitions of Brace Brace.

bbstill5Still from promotional video. Image courtesy: Brace Brace

Perhaps contra-intuitive to the imperative of resistance with which we have been trained, the ambition of Brace Brace is, I would claim, ultimately one of reaching justice – but not via critique but rather via affirmative behaviour. During the presentation as well as the “shark tank”, Brace Brace invoked three models for realising this ambition.

1. Acceleration: The first model is to accelerate the existing flows of powers by vesting one’s activities in and intensifying capitalism itself – thus, potentially, speeding up the – alleged – inevitable, eventual self-destruction of capitalism. In other words: let’s help make things worse and perhaps, when everything has gone to hell, it will be better.

2. Re-direction: Similar to the first model, the second model is one by which you also identify with the existing flows of power and act them out – but not to intensify them; rather to utilise the existing flows of power to re-direct them to other destinations more beneficial to society.

3. Proposition: The third model is to exit contemporary art (not art) and instead make propositional art. An art that proposes clear, identifiable solutions to injustice – what Suhail Malik calls “re-instutionalisation”. Like the first and second model, it is an art not based on critique, but on affirmation – in that it of course stands by its own propositions. However, in this model, affirmative behaviour is not based on using unfortunate means to a better end.

Contrary to propositional art, contemporary art is an art whose axioms demand that all artists and viewers alike must escape any restriction to their autonomy – so as to set us free, be more authentic, more social, more real. On the one hand, artists must critique any institution that limits them and create spaces promoting the right to all of our differences. To support their credo, they must not only escape institutional limits, but of course also not themselves create an art that limits the viewer. On the other hand, viewers must assert their own autonomy by claiming their absolute right to individual interpretation. Which the artist generously had facilitated by making “open art”.

bbstill33D rendering of luxury yacht. Still from promotional video.
Image courtesy: Brace Brace

bbstill43D rendering of luxury yacht. Still from promotional video.
Image courtesy: Brace Brace

Through sophisticated arguments, too lengthy to unfold here, Suhail Malik quite convincingly argues1 how the deregulation of all limitation, the endless multiplication of difference and the absolutism towards individual autonomy, ultimately, also, plays into the hands of neo-liberalism; in other words, injustice. Justice, on the other hand, is artificial; it has to be build – proposed. The “more real” acquired when everyone is granted absolute autonomy, is really a “real” based on cut-throat survival of the fittest. What is to be taken from this, is that justice is maintained by artificial institutions, not by absolutism towards individual autonomy from any institution.

The three models share methodology in so far that they refuse to be representations made for individual interpretation – but rather actions and/or actionable propositions. However morally different, the three models are to be recognised for their acknowledgement of the impossibility of not always-already being complicit in the flows of power, and their denial of the classical model of critique – which is considered an unattainable outside (privileged) position.

But where propositional art is one of humanist integrity towards our agency as members of society, acceleration is an art of cynical determinism – albeit one wishing for a better future beyond the future. In the nature of things, it is impossible to be a humanist and a determinist at the same time. Somewhere in the middle, perhaps mitigating the contradiction between humanism and determinism, we find re-direction: an art of cynicism but without determinism.

1. On accelerationist terms, Brace Brace is, potentially, playing into the hands of financial power by producing extravagant goods for its members; and thus hastening capital’s self-collapse. But first of all, let’s be real: the supposed collapse of capitalism, would hardly be the result of small business, but of financial capitalism or something worse yet to come. Leaving that aside, as a company selling equipment, not for individual interpretation (which is to say contemporary art), but as a status-providing utility, Brace Brace runs into two problems. First, even if Brace Brace are not to blame, situating their business within the context of contemporary art, i.e. the gallery, negatively bias our belief in their ambitions. Second, this bias is solidified when it becomes clear to us that their product is not a status-utility like a Porsche or a yacht, but an allegory – which is to say a representation for individual interpretation. It is an allegory that reads: “what, ultimately, could save us from disaster is the farce of luxury (i.e. capitalism itself – as it will kill itself if accelerated)”. What is being sold, is an ironic “motto” for their critical theory – illustrated by an embodied allegory; a luxury good conflating the story of disasters caused by capitalism and our own complicity in it. Who buys such things? Art collectors.

bbstill13D rendering of luxury yacht. Still from promotional
video. Image courtesy: Brace Brace

bbstill2Still from promotional video. Image courtesy: Brace Brace

2. On re-directional terms, Brace Brace also said, during the “shark tank”, that they aspire to use the flows of power as a means to different, better end-results. If so, one has to ask: what kind of destination is their product supposed to end at? Do we benefit from – even if unlikely – a venture capitalist buys such product, wanting a laugh with his friends while vacating; drinking champagne on his yacht? If the project attempts to re-direct injustice towards justice, albeit through unfortunate means, then to where is it re-directed and for whom is it for? Is it then, perhaps – once again – rather an embodied representation illustrating their critical theory, readily available for interpretation and for art collectors to buy?

3. On propositional terms, flat out, Brace Brace doesn’t propose solutions to injustice – other than perhaps proposing accelerationism or re-directionism.

On general terms, it is hard to see why the negation of individual interpretation is so intrinsic to Brace Brace. They have stated in their presentation that they wish to see beyond the “neoliberal fantasy of individual autonomy – the fictional freedom – upon which Contemporary Art’s paradigm of emancipated spectatorship is based”. Why would they see beyond neoliberalism when, in accelerationist terms, it is to be faced and intensified? Or, why would they move beyond this fantasy of neoliberalism, when it is, in terms of re-directional art, to be used affirmatively to re-direct the flows of power within its own system? And finally, if it is not an accelerationist or re-directional business, for what use, other than a propositional art, is the attack on contemporary art’s imperative of individual autonomy? And a propositional art Brace Brace is not.

The only “buoyancy ring” they may have thrown for themselves, is when they said: “Brace Brace proposes strategies for doing art through commercial processes, where spectatorship itself becomes part of art’s materiality rather than its purpose”. What I take this to mean is that they wish to instrumentalise critical virtues as a means to sell goods in a financial system — a system that is to be accelerated or re-directed. This makes sense. But isn’t it precisely what contemporary art already does: using critical virtues to sell goods. And if so, then, on those terms, contemporary art is already accelerationist or re-directionist — but of course certainly not, as it stays within the axioms of contemporary art, propositional. If wanting to stay within the field of art, and if accelerationism or re-directionism is their means, why the quarrel with contemporary art, it’s critiques and the individual interpretation of them?

Brace Brace are to be applauded for insisting on the possibility of an art that moves beyond the incompetence of critique as we know it today. And rightly so do they, if asked whether we should refuse, as a supposed consequence, to be compelled to leave the institutions, we currently inhabit – without succumbing to the demands of contemporary art – say, affirmatively, loud and clear: Yes!

I do not claim, myself, to have found ways to resolve these deadlocks or fuse their elements convincingly. And so, even if we must conclude that the current state of Brace Brace’s project is a critique of current critique and falls short of leaving critique, then keeping on negotiating these questions, from whichever angle we can, must be considered worthwhile. To be clear, the problem Brace Brace is facing, is not that a critique of critique is to be thought of as an oxymoron – such childish positivism would render any analysis or theory of how to proceed impossible. Ultimately, the outcome of Brace Brace’s project is not a failure per se – it is without doubt a contribution to our venture towards a different model for art. Their “failure” is only to be measured against the premises they laid down for themselves.

x Janus Høm.

Footnotes‘
1 Suhail Malik Exit not escape – On The Necessity of Art’s Exit from Contemporary Art 2013 @ Artist Space, New York https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fimEhntbRZ4

Decentering the Formations of Critique (Janus Høm) (PDF)

Formation Center is a project that works with artists whose practice oscillates between art and commerce. On display at TOVES are three presentations by Sanke of Norway, Visualize / Actualize and Brace Brace.

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Brace Brace is a luxury emergency equipment brand, established to create the most beautiful safety gear in the world. It began as the artistic collaboration between Annika Kuhlmann and Christopher Kulendran Thomas and now continues as an expanding inquiry into how the aesthetics of fear might be redirected.
brace-brace.com

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Visualize -> Actualize is a lifestyle brand and manifesto that’s firmly rooted in the belief that “just do-ing it” just doesn’t quite cut it. Visualize / Actualize is founded by Canadian artist Shaun Motsi.
visualizeactualize.net

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SANKE is a high end luxury brand offering health products based on revolutionary principles.
SANKE is founded by Olso based artist Andreas Ervik.
sankeofnorway.com

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For the opening event June 5 the exhibition was activated by product presentations followed by a shark tank styled Q&A chaired by independent curator and writer Agatha Wara, artist Christopher Kuledran Thomas and strategist and developer Morgan Sutherland.

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Formation Center

Presenting Brace Brace, SANKE of Norway and Visualize/Actualize.
Shark Tank styled Q&A chaired by Agatha Wara, Christopher Kulendran Thomas and Morgan Sutherland

5.6.2015 – 27.6.2015

www.toves.dk