Post-Capital : Art et économie à l’ère du digital

by Patrice Joly

Exhibiting : Ei Arakawa, Mohamed Bourouissa, Cao Fei, Simon Denny, Lara Favaretto, GCC, Guan Xiao, Shadi Habib Allah, Roger Hiorns, Oliver Laric, Liz Magic Laser, Katja Novitskova, Laura Owens, Yuri Pattison, Sondra Perry, Josephine Pryde, Nick Relph, Cameron Rowland, Hito Steyerl, Martine Syms, Nora Turato

Mudam Luxembourg

2.10.2021 – 16.01.2022.

There is a kind of irony behind the interest in organising exhibitions like the one currently on display at Mudam, Luxembourg. The country, whose GDP per capita is the highest in the world, is also a paradise for banks—not to be confused with “tax haven”—and plays a large part—in an indirect way, certainly—in precisely what this exhibition vehemently critiques: a disturbing drift witnessed in the latest version of capitalism1 as well as in the impact it has on our lives, our jobs, our minds, our imaginary. There is also the city of Verbier, Switzerland—the chicest resort town in a well-off, to say the very least, country, whose wealth resides in the prosperity of multinationals like Nestlé, which manage to exist without giving much thought to the exploitation of water and other planetary resources—which is currently organising a symposium entitled “Resource Hungry2. Like Léo Guy-Denarcy, we may also be alarmed by the “gulf marking the difference in skin colour of the security guards and that of the public3 », as witnessed at the two current exhibitions at the Palais de Tokyo3.  The contradictions of contemporary art are far from ending there: artists produce militant artwork which is openly political, anticapitalist, etc. and yet this work regularly ends up in collections belonging to millionaires who we can safely assume have some responsibility in this capitalist drift. Is it simply inevitable, a systemic impossibility of finding a way to do things differently? Considering that the fine arts and museum systems are becoming more and more dependent on sponsorship from the private sector, and that for instance, a large-scale exhibition like that of Hito Steyerl in Canada is sponsored by an arms manufacturer4, how can we continue sidestepping the issue? Some of the doubt and skepticism that the “general public” reserves for contemporary art are the result of contradictions like these which are not always easy to grasp or justify. In a recent interview published on the online platform AOC on the occasion of the French publication of Hito Steyerl’s essay Duty Free Art5, the artist points to the risk that contemporary art runs which could eventually lead to it being “abandoned to the wills of the market; closely linked to the duty-free economy, to freeports, but also to authoritarian regimes, to feudalism. If contemporary art is to be left at the mercy of these forces, it will see all of its other potential effects minimised, to the point where they may end up disappearing.” As subsidiary to the main topic of the exhibition as these considerations may be, this does not take away from the fact that the monetisation of data remains omnipresent, including in the domain of contemporary art. As sociologist McKenzie Wark states: “There is nothing that can’t be tagged and captured through information about it and considered a variable in the simulations that drive resource extraction and processing.6 »

One of the premises of the “Post Capital” exhibition is that the vast majority of global economic development over the past two decades resides in the stratospheric rise of the digital economy and in particular in the mining of personal data by online multinational conglomerates. The aforementioned McKenzie Wark calls attention to the fact that the majority of leading big businesses on the US stock exchange are involved in information technologies— which are however not limited to technology and communication. The automobile and pharmaceutical industries are just as incredibly well-versed in this domain7. This paradigm shift has upturned the foundations of capitalism in such a way as to point to the possibility of its being surpassed…and replaced by something far worse!  

Studio Rémi Villaggi – 50 Bd de l’Europe – 57070 Metz Port: + 33(0)6 80 14 94 95

“This exhibition is not intended as an argument for or against technological change. Nor does it attempt to define our contemporary economic situation as ‘post-capital’. 8 », explains curator Michelle Cotton. It is indeed difficult to craft an exhibition in the form of a manifesto and present it in an overtly critical manner. Nonetheless, the exhibition currently on view at Mudam presents the work of some of the most politically-engaged artists we have at the moment; activists such as Hito Steyerl whose work examines in an extremely precise way the trespasses of and special privileges accorded to the digital economy including the “neoliberal drift of the market, of institutions and the domain of contemporary art; all which are closely linked to privatisation, sponsorship, the growing inaccessibility of art, and are also tied deeply and in a complex way to arms manufacturers, to war and dictators on a global scale.9Here the artist carries out —through the use of the proceedings from the sale of one of her artworks, which she discovered was being stocked at the Geneva Freeports—an installation made up of planters whose form echo that of the free ports in Geneva and Singapore. The plants that sprout from these planters were chosen collaboratively with members of different community gardens, allowing for a poetic and disinterested disruption of tax evasion tactics represented by these infamous free ports. 

In a similar denunciatory vein, the work of Simon Denny (Amazon Worker Cage Patent Drawing As Virtual Aquatic Warbler Cage, 2021) is particularly representative of the direction in which the new spirit of capitalism could potentially lead us if it is not reined in by some form of resistance. It consists of the reproduction—based on specifications obtained via data leak—of something that can only be called a “cage,” designed to literally imprison Amazon employees—whose official use was to provide a secure work station—but which can only be considered as the final step towards the complete alienation of the worker by their employer. Fully expectant of the enormous backlash that a setup of this sort would unleash, the company eventually decided against the implementation of these individual prison cells in its warehouses.

Studio Rémi Villaggi – 50 Bd de l’Europe – 57070 Metz Port: + 33(0)6 80 14 94 95

The exhibition abounds in works of this sort, which project what the implications of a fully-realised dream of capitalism 4.0 would be for the ensemble of human activities. Most of the examples given here stay away from a dystopian approach, remaining within the realm of our current reality. In Yuri Patterson’s work, (The Ideal, 2015 – ongoing), both the working conditions of bitcoin miners and the impact of their production on the wilderness of Tibet are revealed—while pointing out, in passing, the inherent contradiction in the production process of virtual currencies which requires grandiose amounts of electricity. The setup of these bitcoin mines in Tibet are the flip side of the coin of neocolonialist China’s tendencies toward a segment of its population which does not wish to align itself with official Communist Party discourse.           

By far the most spectacular of the works presented at the Mudam is Roger Hiorns’ Mig 21  (The Retrospective View of the Pathway, 2017 – ongoing), which reigns over the museum courtyard. A meditation on the proliferation of the fighter jet, emblematic of powers of the state and the dreams of grandeur of its leaders, the machine excavated by the artist is one of a series of burials carried out from Great Britain to the Czech Republic—where this particular one was exhumed. It symbolises the hidden systems of information exchange which structure society. Mohamed Bourouissa’s video, on the other hand, remains open-ended. This very “polyphonic” work was filmed inside a coin factory in Pessac and cuts to scenes filmed at the Monnaie de Paris, underlining the aspirations of an upwardly-mobile ex-drug dealer who is not much worried about hiding his tumultuous past: the lyrics and rhythms of the music, by Booba, provide a counterpart to the sound of the production of coins being stamped with the likeness of the French rapper. Bourouissa’s work is a departure from the rest of the exhibition—most of which are critical of capital and its noxious effects on society—and highlights a relentless thirst for money—from heads of state to heads of boardrooms, young suburbanites included, the latter for whom its possession represents the possibility of extracting them from their current condition. 

1 Michelle Cotton on the succession of different appellations used to refer to capitalism, All That is Solid Melts Into Air, Post Capital exhibition catalog, p25 and following pages.

2 Verbier Art Summit is a yearly gathering taking place at the ski resort in Verbier which attracts numerous artists, scholars, curators, and directors of institutions to discuss topics relating to the scarcity of resources (https://fr.verbierartsummit.org/2021)

3 Léo Guy-Denarcy, Vieil océan – on Six continents ou plus at Palais de Tokyo, AOC, 9 décembre 2021 ?

4 Interview with Gaya Hernando Lopez and Benjamin Tainturier, AOC, 15 décembre 2021

5 De lart en duty free, Les presses du réel.

6 McKenzie Wark, (Capital Is Dead: Is This Something Worse? (Le capital est mort, faut-il s’en inquiéter ?) « Post-Capital » exhibition catalog, p41 and following pages.

7 Idem.

8 Michelle Cotton, op. cit.

9 Interview with Gaya Hernando Lopez and Benjamin Tainturier, AOC, 15 décembre 2021

. . .

Image en une : View of the exhibition Post-Capital: Art and the Economics of the Digital Age, 02.10.2021 — 16.01.2022, Mudam Luxembourg © Photo: Rémi Villaggi | Mudam Luxembourg

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