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If not, then what?

March 10, 2011

On the 9th of March UfSO conducted a university recruitment fair in a temporarily constructed pavilion designed by artists Charlesworth, Lewandowski & Mann at Chelsea College of Art’s parade ground. The presentation was part of If Not, Then What? – a Chelsea Programme project guest-curated by Cecilia Wee, examining how art and creative practice can create change in politics. The project attempted to explore, develop and critique various forms of collective and local political engagement, working within and beyond the arts and cultural sector.

Chelsea Programme is a public programme at Chelsea College of Art & Design. A series of research-based projects at University of the Arts London, the programme develops projects with a diverse range of British and international artists, curators, academics, designers, thinkers and others, with a particular focus on exploring the interconnections between art and politics.

The UfSO held a mock recruitment stand, at which they dispensed badges and sausages on sticks. We also screened films; presented a course reader of essays and discussed extracts from Marx’s Capital and de Certeau’s Practice of Everyday Life. In this act we attempted to parody and problematise the nature of the position that both the University as an institution and the UfSO itself as an active organisation, find themselves.

The following statement from the UfSO’s Jacques Valentin explains the motivation for, and the problematic issues raised in, participating in this type of cultural event:

“As the salty tide turns still further in the favour of neoliberalism’s circle-jerk, well seasoned arts pros trying to keep their heads above the waves seem to be merely treading water, and we are on their toes, or heels, we never were great dancers. So in deliciously knee-jerk style, rather than chicken out, they have stepped up to the plate and flooded the cultural seascape with a cornucopia of anti-cuts delights. In the mainstream current of these somewhat myopic cultural cataracts, rather than be washed away, certain art aficionados have rubbed salt in the wounds by seeking to salve their consciences and we in the the good ship UfSO have been inundated with requests from well-meaning, well-behaved and well-heeled cultural endeavours content to attack neoliberal ideology on a level of content and in the best way they know. In the process they, and we of course, simultaneously sustain this ideological system through the very form of our operation. We are producing cultural and intellectual commodities.

To turn this screwed up narrative to the nutty professors and professed intercessors in question, Chelsea College clearly produced this event, this professedly anti-cuts exhibition programme, as a form of cultural production that took its place as a commodity in a cultural and academic marketplace. In commissioning the project they are producing not only the exhibition as a commodity form but also human capital for the institutional managers, participants, students and audiences alike and ultimately they are generating surpluses for certain managers at the institution. Through this familiar cycle of capitalist production, this tandem on which the avant-garde pedals hard out front and the managers freewheel along behind, they are of course perpetuating ideologically the forms that dominate our wider socio-economic situation. We the UfSO are, in our being commissioned to undertake an intervention, therefore fulfilling the role of wage labour in this arrangement. In participating, our actions inevitably become caught up within a complex cycle of commodity production and circulation. If this fact were not plain enough, it was pertinently illustrated by a photographer cheekily snatching a few shots of visitors perusing our mockingly critical ‘anti-prospectus’. Upon further enquiry it transpired that these were intended for use in the college’s real, forthcoming prospectus, selling an exciting, artistic image to prospective student-consumers and potential investors in the cultural-education marketplace: an ouroborus of commodification and recuperation, it appeared, was complete.

We could, it might be said, have refused to participate in this cycle, we could have chosen, as the apparently free and critical, liberal humanist subjects we were always taught to believe in, to abstain completely from cultural production. As free, thinking owners of our labour power, it would follow that we have the option to freely enter into or abstain from contractual, transactional arrangements in order sell (or in theory to not sell) this labour power on the open market to whomsoever we choose. If it were indeed possible that we should for whatever political or ethical reason refuse to sell our labour power, would we not then instead be forced to embark upon what would become an isolationist programme, rejecting the aesthetic for the ascetic, retreating into the self-consolation of a gestural purity? In appeasing our own, personal consciences would we be adopting a problematic ‘not-in-my name’ approach, individualising and atomising our struggle anew?

Whereas perhaps this is a position that we might take if we were to still to understand ourselves as free, bounded, liberal humanist subjects, however, enmeshed within a neoliberalism in which every aspect of our life has become commodified and likewise a site of (self) control, there is no autonomous sphere into which to retreat. Our human capital will be traded regardless of our complicity in the transaction, I severely doubt that the cultural industries will grind to a halt because the UfSO says no, takes its ball and goes home. To date there has been not one successful art strike. If we refuse to write poetry after Auschwitz, then Hitler becomes the most influential artist of the twentieth century. If leftists renounce art then we are condemning society to look at the intellectual equivalent of a load of crappy watercolours of Vienna for all eternity, our vision of the future receding to the nightmare of Hannah Gordon stamping on a human face – forever. When Debord expelled the artists from the SI he succeeded in nothing except giving the SI an aura of a radical authenticity that did not and could not exist. In this, he turned the SI into a brand with a radical USP, an even more marketable cultural commodity.

The alternative to this gesture of denial is that we can accept that politics itself is cultural production and that it inheres within the very act of speaking out through what are after all, (or should be), our public forums: academia, the arts, publishing, even the media. If we withdraw from such ‘compromised’ arenas will corporate advertising and the opinion factory of the right-wing press likewise withdraw? Or will they of course, merely colonise still more of our public and ideological space? It’s confidence that’s the problem, this isn’t about repressive desublimination. If neoliberalism has stolen our modes of, and therefore our capacity for, communication, networking, self-organisation and even our very biographies then perhaps rather than dreaming bittersweetly about some lost ideological purity we used to have when everything was cool and retro and people didn’t need aps to make their photos look shit, we might alternatively propose that to abstain from the cultural arena on the grounds that the culture industries are a nest of hypocritical, bourgeois narcissists is a self-defeating moral high ground we can ill-afford to take. Surely then it is better to dip our toes in the water, to take the temperature, to have our cake and eat it than to starve simply because we don’t want to go near the hand that seeks to feed us, let alone bite it.

Short of abdicating any responsibility for the manner in which ideology is constructed (which is in itself a politically recuperable gesture), we are unable to stand outside the all-encompassing neoliberal marketplace of the knowledge and cultural industries, unable to achieve some illusionary critical purity. Instead we might attempt to navigate tactically, in the case of our Chelsea intervention, touting for potential ‘students’, promoting our ‘commodities’ and attempting to use the art space to actively agitate and encourage people on to the streets through face to face conversation and to perform an immanent critique of the whole commodified arrangement.

We can regrettably but legitimately admit that the documentation, experiences and skills acquired through our protests are no less commodities than the critical or cultural ‘products’ of the university or art gallery and can therefore be likewise traded as human capital in the networked marketplace of a neoliberal cultural and knowledge economy. Therefore rather than posturing purity we can perhaps occupy these marketplaces tactically, attempting to divert these modes of operation to our political purposes in a clandestine fashion. We can use aesthetics as the form that sustains us, tides us over as a politically active, self-organising group until the next collective opportunity arises from which to directly attack those arenas of production that remain key to radical change.

Not all in the UfSO subscribe to this position, indeed it is a site of constant debate and negotiation, but the advantage of a radically pluralistic group is that it gives us a site through which to think out these important dilemmas. At Chelsea we were attempting to problematise and articulate this dilemma through the performative act of overblown and naked self-promotion in the shape of a recruitment fair. The act of creating a artistic parody of a university recruitment fair at the heart of the ‘University of the Arts London’ is of course a cultural commodity but it is also a political act. We should never forget that we are at the coalface of ideology, that art, even as it acquires exchange value as a commodity, can yet retain a use-value in building and sustaining collective experience, and as covert, or even overt propaganda. By our occupation of both this symbolic and physical space in the art college at Chelsea, we attempt to show that by being only a stone’s throw from the Tate we can sometimes also be only a brick’s throw from Millbank Tower”.

Dr. Jacques Valentin

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