The Public Secret (Dispatches No4)

I struggle to articulate what I mean by the ‘public secret’. Maybe that’s the problem; we all feel this pervasive, intangible ‘thing’ without the vocabulary to point and call it out. What ever we say never seems to be quite right and gets stuck in our throats. We seem to be lost in a state of frustration, confusion, and isolation.

I suppose that’s the main reason for the exhibition and the accompanying Instagram experiment. To emulate a familiar format like social media, or a bar, or a city, but also create a new space within the Neo-liberal framework that allows for honest contemplation and conversations which are met with empathy rather than embarrassment, or derision.

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An anonymous submission for ‘The Public Secret Experiment’ Instagram account.

However, there have been a  few other elements that have run through my mind over the past year whilst ‘The Public Secret’ exhibition, and my work for it, has congealed into a solid mass. I’ll try and run through some of them now.

Commodified Self Worth and Individualised Mental Health

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Passage from ‘Out of the salon: female counter-spaces, anti-colonial struggles and transversal politics’ by sophie schasiepen

The symbiosis of the internal and external; the individual and the community is complex. What I do understand is to have a healthy connection between the two there has to be mutual support and respect. Late-capitalism blocks this communication, leaving us isolated and toxically dependent on the sugar rush of commodity.

Advertising, social media, retail therapy (“retail therapy”!!!) all play on the ‘be a better version of yourself’. The feedback loop for this commercial-self relies heavily on the not-quite-good-enough. For you to buy into it, it must first make you feel shit about yourself.

 

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Advertisement from Nissan. Your basically a loser,that nobody cares about, unless you buy this car.

Self-worth comes from within, but we’re seeking it from false external springs that fail to nourish us internally – physically and mentally. We’re constantly seeking validation by comparing ourselves to others and its making us sick. How have we ended up in a time where we are having to have serious studies into ‘Facebook depression’?

Sadly, I don’t think we have found a sufficient way to talk about all this sincerely enough yet; its either too uncomfortable, or too sickly. We carry on regardless where it is familiar and safe and we can continue with our self-medicated therapy.

Gentrification

Richard Ford is a guy who came up with a way of predicting up-and-coming areas by looking at a regions current demographic – the Bohemian index and the Gay index. Two indicators that a geographic area will culturally bloom and become very lucrative to home owners,  business owners, and  property developers (think Berlin and San Francisco).

Post-industrial cities seem to becoming more notorious for cheap property development and depleting local authority budgets – making them more susceptible to gentrification.

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Billboards for redevelopment in Sheffield. The shapes, colours, and wording are very childlike and links self-worth to commerce. A lego trail, ‘Bricktopolis’, was used as a promotional campaign aimed at children and families.

Social and affordable housing are at crisis point, due to a mix of government legislation, recession, and some other stuff I don’t understand. Local budgets are desperately low, leaving authorities in a position where they have to sell assets (or in some cases, like with art galleries, rent buildings for free). With that, private ownership – typically in the shape of landlords – goes up, along with the price of rent.

Another effect from central government’s hands off approach is the prestige projects. In an effort to attract business and leasure tourism, local governments come up with multi-million projects in a bid to make some money (they tend to flop spectacularly, leaving the region with a bigger deficit, and a weirdly designed building they have to frantically think up a purpose for. I’m looking at you Sheffield Hallam University Union Bar née National Museum of Popular Music).  Also, these projects get passed with very little input from the community. Planning permission favors profit over social contribution.

Whether public or private, developments offer Utopian-like dreams – green space, blue skies, culture, fresh bread, dream jobs, unadulterated ecstasy. But its social mores are cut loose when economic value overrules social worth. It is not accessible for everyone (I’ve reminded myself of ‘city ambassadors’ shooing the homeless out of sight every time I go to The Winter Garden in Sheffield). The original occupants tend to be pushed out of the area due to raising living cost. The only jobs available are zero hour, or on a temporary basis only. The cost of living inevitably further isolates the already marginalised. And we’re back to the commodified self-worth; we are what we get paid to do.

 

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Billboard for a new development on Whitehall Road, Leeds. Again linking purpose with work.

Mark Fisher and Acid Communism

Mark Fisher weaves through almost all of the work and discussions at the Retro Bar. Acid Communism particularly strikes in us some kind of hope for the future of the people on this planet (whatever the timescale). It is an idea Fisher, sadly, never fully completed. I can only offer my interpretation. Put briefly, acid communism is the reconsiderations of 60s counter culture; the raising of the collective conciousness, and sharing of experience as a form of chipping away at the capitalist monolith. I wouldn’t necessarily say this means we all live in the woods, tripping on acid, whilst tattooing inspirational quotes to our eyelids – however appealing that may be to some. I think it just means care more. Listen. Think. Empathise. I think Fisher is so popular with us because he spoke in a way that was sincere and didn’t make you cringe.

Individual Blame and Corporate Responsibility

I also think this isn’t just applicable to the introspective individual, but applies more and more to corporate responsibility. I see so much blame, anxiety, guilt and shame being put onto individuals to take responsibility for their own actions – and yeah, sure. But compare this to the actions and the impact corporate irresponsibility has to our planet and our communities. I’m sure you recycle, and I’m sure there are times when you cant be bothered. But do you incinerate millions of pounds worth of surplus clothing to keep your brand exclusive? My point being, the sum of our individual actions can sometimes feel measly compared to the damage being done by multinational businesses – its exhausting and you shouldn’t feel guilty for just chucking everything in your black bin. But please don’t give up.

Shared experience and Intellectual Property.

I’ll tell you what I love (and i sincerely mean love) about being a member of the Retro Bar and why I want to share the work we do with you.

The way in which we work, from initial meetings to actually seeing the ideas come to fruition is based on open conversation, shared ideas, and mutual support. I love when someone suggests an idea – even if its for their individual practice –  and we all get hyper about it. I feel like I have found a place of nourishment and inspiration, of purpose, and hope for the future.

And I wish a happy and healthy future for all DIY spaces and artist led groups. We dwell in temporary and precarious places, which can be a breeding ground for competition. But, can also be a place of pulling resources and creating stronger networks of collective care.

Thanks for listening.

Bek.

More.

I’m by no means as well read as the other guys. My ideas are shaped by snippets of this and that roughly selotaped together with badly placed punctuation. But I’ll include some of my sources below if you want to check anything out.

As well as the above ideas here are some other sources of inspiration to me that have contributed to the work I have made for the ‘Public Secret’ Exhibition.

  • GRISELDA POLLOCK on Edouard Manet’s, The Bar at the Foiles Bergere, 1882. I saw this video quite late into the process, but I found Griselda (and Manet) articulated something I was trying to say far better than I ever will and she has helped me to frame my work.
  • EDWARD PAOLOZZI – I really like this artist and his critical irony through collages of mainstream media, imagined cityscapes, and bright colours.

It's a Psychological Fact Pleasure Helps your Disposition 1948 by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi 1924-2005

Its a Psychological Fact Pleasure Helps Your Disposition, 1948

Bash 1971 by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi 1924-2005

Bash, 1971

 

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The Public Secret (Dispatches NO3)

”As exchange-values, all commodities are merely definite quantities of congealed labour-time” – Karl Marx, Das Kapital, 1867.

The commodification of every aspect within society is an inevitable progression of a capitalist based economy. Marx expressed the potential contraction at the heart of this mode of production. The surplus-value, which is unpaid labour through production of commodities, is taken as profit by those with the means of production. These ‘means’ (which hold power) have been enshrined within society through centuries of class development and exploitation. We are beginning to truly see these contradictions played out on a global scale because the working classes (which includes a great generalisation of the stratifications in different societies) cannot afford to purchase the goods and services which they produce. As Marx pointed out this leads to constant boom and bust. Hence, the boom in the 90s perpetrated by de-regulating markets, improving production techniques to decrease the labour required to create products; and then the subsequent global financial crash in 2007-08 perpetrated by de-regulated markets selling to people who could not afford to buy services and commodities.

What does this abstract economics have to do with The Public Secret project?

The short answer is everything! The human concept of ‘value’ is at stake within this discursive web. What value do we place in relation to art? There is a long history attached to this question from Aristotle to Hegel and Svetlana Alpers to Claire Bishop the ‘worth’ of art, and subsequently its position within the ecology of culture and society, has been debated for millennia. This is a complex question as there is an obvious set of economic values including exchange-value and labour-wage value in the art market. These values are monetary and do not necessarily correlate with use-value or moral-value i.e. ethics. This distinction is important and the blurring of such boundaries within the collective consciousness of contemporary society is central to a gross public secret. Let me explain. The semiotics at play within the current form of neo-liberal capitalism, which is packaged in a gloriously glossy cellophane and sold to us on a daily basis, are neurotic.

My reasoning for the above statement is complex, and needs further discussion and debate beyond this text, and indeed plays out in the collective space created by the Retro Bar at the End of the Universe. I would like to add a pre-requisite at this stage, that, just as Marx and others have pointed out the processes at work within capitalist accumulation are not inherently good or bad. It is an empirical system, the problem occurs with its distribution, and the hierarchical systems of deep exploitation which has only accelerated with the neo-liberal ‘branding’ of capitalism on a global scale. It is to such an effect that a form of neurosis has occurred in which ‘we’ as a society attribute the word, ‘value’ almost exclusively to signify ‘monetary’ value. Indeed our motivations are entirely governed by such significations. Whether we admit to it or not, we are constantly comparing and weighing up the monetary value of commodities. This plays out in its most distilled form on the international stock exchange, built on risk -reward scarcity. It plays out on social media, particularly through Instagram, and the rising cult of the ‘celebrity life’ story, which is rewarded with increasing monetary value. The image = value = money.

Historically, there is a discourse within art which has opposed the capitalist system. The development of Conceptual art of the 60s and 70s, which aimed to de-materialise the art object not only in an attempt to deconstruct the forces of the art market, but also to finally liberate art from its own materiality. However, the forces of capital and a market driven art world managed to circumvent such a critique and re-appropriate its resistance into the commodification of ‘ideas’. The strangest, most outrageous coupled with the most banal was the name of the game. Figures such as: Sol Lewitt, Joseph Kosuth and Marina Abramovic became prominent within the art world and beyond. It is precisely this phenomena or the ‘cult of the artist as celebrity’ which the market could sell. It did not matter how problematic the theme of the artwork was or how ‘de-materialised’ the object; the art world was dealing on reputation and on endless novelty. Of course, many artists before and since have played on these notions of the art market including, Warhol, Hirst and Duchamp to name a few. Their practice was to recognise this problematic at the centre of the art world and not to resist openly but dance on the razors edge between appropriation and co-option.

There is course a metaphysical trace in play to this narrative. Philosopher Jacques Derrida articulated this in Structure, Sign and Play (1966). Derrida suggested that, ‘the whole history of the concept of structure, before the rupture I spoke of, must be thought of as a series of substitutions of centre for centre, as a linked chain of determinations of the centre. Successively, and in a regulated fashion, the centre receives different forms or names. The history of metaphysics, like the history of the West, is the history of these metaphors and metonymies’. Derrida is referring to a history in which societies have always assigned an abstract anchor or centre for belief such as: Magic, God, Man, Science etc. in which to build their entire society. Derrida suggested that we are limited by the language of the past, of our ancestors, as we must constantly destroy and remake their systems again and again in different ways in order to create ‘new’ structures. However, the ‘event’ which Derrida is referring to is when we began to question the centre and the structure revealed itself to no longer be a structure but a system of substitutions of signs. This is particularly important to our current question of the public secret, as a growing secularity within societies across the world is resulting in religion being expelled from the centre of belief. It is for this reason that many people are simply motivated by the prospect of gaining more capital, more social power bought through the accumulation of wealth. As they are no longer subjected to the moral codes imposed by religion. This of course, is not the entire picture but nevertheless the importance of gaining wealth as a motivational factor is a vital discourse.

It is paramount that as individuals within a society we have a centre of belief, even if we know rationally it is not a ‘real structure’. This is essentially an ideology. Our collective wellbeing and mental health relies upon it, as the complete ‘free-play’ of significations, which Derrida suggested is taking place, implies possible infinities. As humans we cannot greatly conceptualise infinities, we almost gravitate to forms of structure and limitations with the goal of proposing forms of order. It is this fundamental pattern making, that is both socially and culturally ingrained within metaphysics. It is also why we accept models such as capitalism and socialism, as they impose some order which we can break and remodel to some extent without giving in to complete anarchy. Indeed the word ‘society’ implies a meta-structure to our human relations.

What is left?

In an episteme, in which time is out of joint and the past is constantly returning in ghostly and spectral forms. This state of play is both created and reinforced by the ‘consciousness’ streamed directly into our hand-held devices. We are always on and always sharing information in a never before globally connected way. Everything seems to exist simultaneously in this non- stop, neoliberal nightmare of a capitalist realism. However, just for a second, if we follow this logic then perhaps the ‘thing’, which can aid in managing this situation is already available. The key is recognising such a moment when it smacks you on the forehead.

For me, it is the collective- or, a notion of the collective. This notion of collectivism, what Gregory Sholette and Blake Stimson call ‘the new collectivism’, resists the full blown authoritarian form of state based collectivism implemented in the last century to devastating effect in both the then USSR and in Hitler’s Germany. This new collectivism, or ‘isms’, is your local ‘hacktivist’, it is your full blown terror cell and simultaneously your ‘freedom movement’- as we have witnessed across the Arab world. It forms micro community land trusts, which are fighting corporate and governmental ‘gentrification’. It also, coalesces to form activist groups, artist-led collectives, self-help groups, flash mobs and plugs the gaps in diminished welfare through charities and ‘junkyard’ initiatives. This new collectivism doesn’t identify with Marxism, Communism or Leninism. It is a product of global neoliberal capitalism, but at the same time it resists through a smorgasbord of the new and old forms of autonomy. These forms of collective activity are re-modelling a failing system- the distribution of power is beginning to see nano-shifts in its organisation. We are witnessing this shift in power through political events such as: Brexit, Trump’s America and Catalonia’s struggle for independence etc. These re-alignments appear random precisely because collective activity doesn’t have a one specific identifiable ideological basis. Each collective is different, however, they all share a trace. This trace is political, they are endeavouring to collectively change some element of the world we live in. This change is always ideological on some level, and they do it together, as a tribe. However, different they are as individuals, the collective can act as a form of catharsis against an increasingly individualised and isolationist structure of the neoliberal.

Collectivism may not be ‘the’ answer to the world’s problems, but it sure is a start. Personally, I find that the Retro Bar at the End of the Universe is increasingly becoming a support group constructed through mutual respect and collective endeavour to actively tackle social and political problems in society. It is a place, both physically and virtually, where I feel comfortable testing ideas and discussing issues. I feel my mental health is better for being a member, because I feel I belong to something greater than myself. Friendship and solidarity are loaded terms, but they belong in the Retro Bar. What is most rewarding within the Retro Bar is the unspoken role in which each of its members have undertaken. Everyone has organically taken up certain responsibilities. On a personal level, I have developed an exclusively curatorial role within the collective as I feel that is most appropriate both for the collective and also my individual practice.

Finally, the public secret is one of those oxymoron’s. It might even be the ultimate example of an oxymoron. It is through its contradictory nature that we might begin to address our collective failings and eradicate our toxic prejudices. Thus the value of art and the value of collective forms of art go beyond the fiscal. They are searching for the ethical, for a new set of parameters in which to create equilibrium. This is an unfinished project and it has a long way to go! However, the journey has begun.

John Wright

The Public Secret (Dispatches no2)

It’s hard to say this without sounding whingey, physical toil has been a common experience in this installation. Self-manufacturing my materials by shredding piles of paper “secrets” and pulping them by hand into paper and clay has been exhausting, time consuming, an act of minor industry. The same can be said for printing, cutting and assembling the paper “houses” to create a vacant cityscape. Given the setting: a warehouse on an estate at the fringes of Leeds, one of the great former industrial cities of the North, this feels totally appropriate.

Work has been on my mind; the unrecognised time spent in art production and the ambivalent “value” of artwork made with hours of toil from cheap materials, which will be seen by few and will never see the inside of a respectable white cube.

Repeated failure (shall I say, unexpected outcomes?) has haunted this production as ideas fail to take form so must radically adjust day-to-day. This is, I remind myself, necessary and the reason why art is work.

Accepting unexpected outcomes and embracing the non-value of these objects has freed me somewhat and turned the repetitive slog of (unwaged) labour back into play. This has made it possible to celebrate the grossness of this material experience (by “gross” I mean both: the grotesque associations with effluvium and the tactile qualities of material plasticity).

In other words my pulp totems look like nothing so much as grey-white shit. Decimated dog shit, like you used to see in parks and beer gardens.

Using my body’s labour to process this waste into material is what led me to think about ideas surrounding consumption, digestion, excreta.

More on the grotesque element later.

Like many “flexible” creative sector employees and self-employed artists, I have a complicated relationship with leisure. I am always working and never working, the threshold between work and downtime is very blurry indeed. This is a common source of anxiety for artists but increasingly with the casualisation of labour, it’s seeping into industries also (at least, for those like us on low pay). By extension, the relationship with leisure and self-medicating habits like smoking and drinking becomes complicated also. I have a reliance on tobacco, alcohol and caffeine which isn’t healthy but isn’t rare either. This common experience is represented in the turd-like totems which resemble mugs, beer glasses and ashtrays. A desire to connect with others through pleasurable, sensory experience and temporarily escape capitalist drudgery is what Mark Fisher called “Acid Communism”, after the drug-fuelled counter cultures of the 60s and 70s. My public secret is that whether we realise it or not, we are all looking for a form of (small “c”) communist experience when we raise a glass with strangers or share a cigarette break. These are temporary, microscopic utopias.

Soft beer glasses and ashtrays squat alongside the turds. The vessels represent a material culture I associate with pleasurable escape.

I’m not brazen enough to call my art utopian. It contains no specific political or historical points of reference. The primary experience of utopia is never escapism or nostalgia but longing. In this regard there is utopian sentiment, at least. Excited as I am by utopian theory, this is a topic that has been put through the wringer enough in recent art writing. So as not to bore I will be specific and brief.

“Utopia is not already an alternative, just as Carnival is not an alternative to work. But like many carnivals and certain so-called riots, it screams of the need for a total alternative and more dangerously still, it reveals the latency of the alternative in elements of present social life. The ‘social safety valve’ function of carnivals, utopias and riots is well known, but the effort and money spent regulating, recuperating or surpressing them betrays the authorities’ fear that too much steam might be let off, leaving a dangerous void or worse, the idea of an engine. That threat lies in a refinement of the question: no longer simply ‘why must Carnival end, why doesn’t all life look like this?’, but: “what latent power, which in Carnival/utopia we PROVE is real, is so unbearable to see shut down? And how shall we perpetuate it: how could it be switched back on and not cut off again?”

-Matthew Hyland on the utopian impulse in Carnival and riot, from Self-Insufficiency

The novels of Francois Rabellais are important expressions of the optimism, utopian longing and the most radical desires of the people. At the time of their writing any form of laughter or free spirit was not condonable by church or state and common humour was pushed out of official spheres. Therefore it coalesced in self-organised events at the market and peasant celebrations, motivated by consumption, production and community participation.

Under the theocratic rule of the Middle Ages, pleasure-seeking and jubilatiom was viewed as a dissident act unless performed in a sanctioned Festival settings.

(Above: installation shot from “Colony” at Hutt Collective)

As such, comical folk culture of the middle ages had its own self-governing territory and time, creating a second world within the official feudal order where behaviour became untethered from the confines of etiquette and where profanities and blasphemies were temporarily permissable. Festivals and the marketplaces were places of frank speech, this informality eventually extended to religious parodies in the form of passion plays. Although mocking of sacred text was not approved by most clergy it was tolerated when deemed to be instructive. This was the moral backdrop to which Rabelais wrote his five books about the giants Gargantua and Pantagruel in the early to mid 16th century. They were not considered to be preventative fables, least of all by his censors. Brant’s Ship of Fools or Lydgate’s Order of Fools are acceptable examples of Grobian cautionary tales (mockeries of the peasant caste and the mad but still significant works of early secular literature) but despite Johann Fischart’s assertion, Rabellasian fiction is actually the opposite, the singlemost comical and comprehensive celebration of the grotesque and enjoyed huge popularity with all classes.

The natural territory of the Grotesque is parody. Parody is more powerful than satire as it is an all-inclusive, all-mocking form of laughter. Satire is exclusive bourgeois rhetoric whereas parody is a social-leveller.

The culture of marketplace and carnival was impressed upon Rabellais in Fontenay le Comte where he spent his youth in a the Cistercian Abbey. A famous carnival came to Fontenay three times a year along with itinerant salesman from neigbouring nations. We know that carnivals such as this were important sites of bookselling both for “serious” publishers and hawkers of chapbooks. This concentrated availability of literature both “high” and “low” attracted students and clergy who contributed to the folk culture of carnival by (often anonymously) writing their own recreational literature. In this way, carnival became a place in which the normally stratified social classes intermingled along with foreigners and nomads in a progressive melting pot for a limited time in the yearly calendar.

This is the essence of Grotesque Realism which Mikhail Bakhtin attributes to the transformative humour of Rabelais and the anti-feudal, popular truths of carnival. To a lesser degree he applies Grotesque Realism to Cervantes and Shakespeare due to their explorations of class and madness which are secondary themes in the genre.

Wolfgang Kayser describes the grotesque as “the estranged world” and an expression of the the id essential to “invoke and subdue the demonic aspect”. To lampoon the source of fears we overcome it, even temporarily. The essential nature of laughter underlines the power of the clown and fool in grotesque culture. In carnival, the fool is an inversion of the king, madness is a gleeful parody of reason, this explains the utopian importance of The Feast of Fools and the Feast of The Ass, which are comic counters to Lent and Corpus Christi. At these specific festivals, commoners are awarded titles for a day including King of Fools, Lord of Misrule and Abbot of Unreason. In this way, jocularity and the mimicry of madness (or at least, “foolery” which in the medieval context is madness interfacing with hierarchy) muddles class and provides a pretext for liquidating the staid social order. Remember- “every joke is a tiny revolution”.

Foucault writes on the disarming power of the madman’s laughter, in a more pessimistic manner: “When the madman laughs, he already laughs with the mask of death, the lunatic, anticipating the macarbre, has disarmed it.”

I mention this because mocking death/other existential anxieties and suspension of official “reason” is vital to most of what I’ve covered in this blog and vital to what inspires me. The next voyage of research will surely have to be an exploration of the grotesque jubilence of the aforementioned counter cultures of the late 20th century (of which Foucault was an active participant to put it mildly). One of the mainsprings of which has to be Crowley, whose Church of Thelema is rooted in Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel.

The purpose this blog was to explain the carnivalesque appearance in my sculpture and provide a reason for the darker contents and also to provide a sort of roadmap.

My art ia not naturally pessimistic, I’m not depicting a dystopia either. I am attempting to reconcile Fisher’s Acid Communism with Grotesque Realism, using materials and symbols of the everyday, rather than relying on visual references to medieval Europe or Stalinist Russia or 70s psychedelia. I’m coming to terms with the fact that whatever I eventually produce may look unfinished or mid-tranformation but that’s what grotesque IS.

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