Arena /

Ccru: Writings 1997–2003 / Time Spiral Press

No one knows exactly when or how the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, or Ccru, came about. Even less is understood of who (or what) speaks through it.

Its existence has been denied more than once, and despite repeated attempts to excise all record of its strange intellectual and aesthetic experiments from institutional histories, it always seems to return, each strain more virulent than the last. The fateful story of the Ccru’s exile from academia in the late 1990s is well known, and frankly unsurprising, as the increasingly exploratory nature of the Unit’s research took it out of officially sanctioned spaces of academic investigation and into a weird underworld contoured by cyberpunk, systems theory, occultism, electronic music, vodou and mathematics. Its members’ status as pariahs of the university system — an ironic effect of their reckless fidelity to the Deleuzian maxim that it is the problem that determines the trajectory of thought (not the other way around) and that such investigations cannot be simply broken off when one pleases — grew in equal ratio to their notoriety in the philosophical, artistic and sonic underground of late twentieth-century Britain. As with any good subterranean microculture, rumors of strange activities abound. Intense drug use, shamanic rituals, disconcerting diagrams etched into nightclub walls, demonic possession, poetic odysseys of xenoglossic click-drift, snake-becomings, time travel, psychological collapse, schizophrenia — the kind of thing that happens when your research takes you somewhere “you” weren’t prepared to go.

Time Spiral Press’s publication of the Ccru’s collected writings marks an important juncture in this game of inoculation and recontamination. Up until now, only hearsay, grim speculation and several bizarre artifacts of uncertain authorship, dredged incautiously from the darkest depths of the Net, have served to give any real insight into the true nature of the collective’s unusual research program. “Unusual” is an understatement. What these documents unmask is nothing less than the fundamental dubiousness of phenomenal reality itself, with the master code of chronological time forming the backbone of a highly sophisticated control system.

Slotting together fragments of coded narrative, the reader finds themselves rapidly sucked down into a disorienting vortex of agents and double agents, insurgents and counterinsurgents, secret societies, dissident technocultures hooked on neuroelectronic drugs, alien abductees, rogue ethnographers, exiled priests, clandestine artificial intelligence research labs, experiments with synthetic time, mind control, demonic rituals gone awry … an incandescent field crosshatched with alien signal and saturated in zygonovic turbulence which maps — perfectly disturbingly — onto our own reality. Nothing is what it seems and no one can be trusted. Coherent conceptions of truth and falsity, reality and unreality, quickly begin to fall away. Splice in some H.P. Lovecraft, William S. Burroughs, PKD, Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, ancient Sumerian mythology, British esotericism, Detroit techno and the biggest, baddest cosmic bootstrap paradox you’ll ever encounter, and you’re starting to get an idea of what these documents contain. The real climax, however, is the intricate elaboration of the Numogram, an occult numerical diagram and asignifying semiotic system retrieved from the depths of time by Miskatonic Virtual University’s resident expert in Lemurian cultural history, Professor Echidna Stillwell. The Numogram’s arithmetic elegance is bracing, and this alone would be enough to justify its place as the centerpiece of the anthology without ever having to mention anything so arcane as time-sorcery. And yet, adherents of Neolumerian lore, from the Black Atlantean cargo-cult, Hyper-C, to Professor Daniel Barker, Iris Carver and the K-Goths, routinely describe the Numogram as a “time-map” — a triumph of virtual cartography marking access points to the nonlinear backchannel of laminar time.

This is not just a story. It would be a mistake to treat these texts as fiction in any trivial sense of the word. Fiction, for starters, relies on a clear sense of truth and falsity. Following Ccru informant William Kaye’s elaboration of writing as “a sorcerous operation,” these texts should be understood as an explicit tactical assault. A gauntlet thrown down on the battlefield of cosmic warfare — what the Ccru has notoriously theorized as “hyperstition.” Any recommendation to delve into the contents of this volume (a recommendation earnestly advanced here) must be issued with the following warning: “Just because it’s not ‘real’ now, doesn’t mean it won’t be real at some point in the future. And once it’s real, in a sense, it’s always been.”

Two thousand and three ostensibly marks the date of the collective’s retreat into the shadows, yet it would be foolish to imagine that we have seen the last of the Ccru. This volume is a signal. If there is one thing these texts have to teach us, it’s that certain things can be counted on to return.

by Prue Nort

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Review /

Giovanni Anselmo Konrad Fischer Galerie / Berlin

The art of Giovanni Anselmo, now in his eighties, has an air of empirical objectivity that is belied by its persistently directing us beyond its material parameters. Minimal and conceptual idioms prove to be Romantically inclined.

“Oltramare” means both “ultramarine,” as in the blue pigment, and “overseas.” Oltramare appare (1978–2015) is a blue rectangle, painted with slabby thrusts of a palette knife onto the wall. The title’s double meaning defines it as an area of raw material as well as an abstraction (a rectangle) and a symbolic window onto an elsewhere. Its materialism is contingent on its illusionism. The palette knife stabs are both the waves on a blue sea and an index of performative process. The blue rectangle even comprehends an allusion to Yves Klein’s International Blue monochromes of a decade earlier.

The word “PARTICOLARE” is projected onto the foot of a wall or across the gallery, materializing on your leg as you pass. It means “part” but seems to contain a sense of the word “particle.” Light, the quantum physicists told us, is both particle and wave, both substance and energy. Anselmo has the word reflect on the medium that makes it visible (VISIBILE is a word he projected in a 1971 work), suggesting that we are looking at a material (present) as well a part of a whole (elsewhere) it can only negatively invoke. This is the defining modesty/extravagance of Anselmo’s art. He requires an evidential basis he can establish in order to taken an imaginative leap into the unknown. Apparently, his fascination with the properties and metaphorical implications of light began with an epiphanic experience in 1965 when he climbed the Stromboli volcano at dawn and found his shadow cast upwards towards infinity. While earth finds its bearing (2002–2015) is a mound of soil with a magnetic needle embedded in its crest, an image of the volcano’s orifice that places it at the center of an anecdote at the same time as pointing away to a remote time and place that leaves the work as a merely symbolic sieving of soil onto the gallery floor.

by Mark Prince

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Arena /

Susan Cianciolo / New York

Susan Cianciolo is a visual artist and filmmaker based in New York. Her recent exhibition at Bridget Donahue, “if God COMes to visit You, HOW will you know? (the great tetrahedral kite)” included a large-scale installation of the artist’s “kits.”

Having emerged in the 1990s as one of the central figures of the deconstructed fashion scene with her clothing label Run, in the years since she has brought her idiosyncratic sensibilities to a staggeringly diverse array of productions and platforms, including performance, sculpture, theater, furniture design, filmmaking and custom-made wearable artworks. Here Cianciolo discusses recent and future productions.

We have spoken a lot about the importance of documentation in your work. Digging through your archive over the past year I saw how deeply your relationships with photographers have impacted your work. Can you talk about how this plays out in recent and future works?

The documentation is the base of all the work and the end result that begins the next work. The study of the images from this recent performance has naturally developed into a series of new films I am currently writing with a collaborator, filmmaker Harry Hughes. Additional components of this process include Surrealist-inspired workshops in different locations here on the East Coast and in the South, at a storefront in Mississippi called Yalo Run that I am opening this summer — where people are joining in to learn in the form of collaboration and exchange. These workshops will feed into a collaborative film with Asher Penn, which will also feature a number of new works, outdoor sculptures, tapestries, functional seating and weather furniture.

I want to talk about your most recent performance. How do you work through the relationship between the designing of the clothes and the live event?

The “designing of clothes” is not a phrase I use in relation to my work. It is more to do with making costumes, and this is developed over a long period of time. With these pieces, I know it appears simple, as if it was thrown together the night before, but I actually want it to seem that way and simultaneously feel like the performers are not completely sure about what is going on. Yet, I place complete trust in those cast. To me this is a definition of a minimalist, mundane performance.

The costumes came from research, from time spent in Beacon over the last year, at Pascale Gatzen’s home and textile studio. I worked from her library and developed some of the textiles in this show, and other research is from my own library where I believe the repetition of studying the same images over many years becomes a meditation and sinks into my consciousness.

What were some of these specific points of inspiration?

Iranian tapestries, Afghani costumes and textiles, Indian textiles, personal friends, the performers themselves. I wanted the whole body covered with many layers to create a mass volume when sitting down. As opposed to all the years of studying movement with shapes, this time it was still forms and an extension of the tapestry so the women existed in a respected place within the room. They were “chosen ones” to speak about the “box kits.”

Speaking of costumes, I wanted to return to a topic we discussed a lot when we first met — your time working with students on the costumes for the Hamlet production by Mark von Schlegell in Frankfurt. A selection of these costumes are on view in the exhibition. What was your experience working on this project?

My experience working on the costumes for Hamlet was life changing. It is difficult to put into words, as what was so crucial about it was the process of working on it together with the extraordinary writer and director Mark von Schlegell, and so many performers and collaborators worth mentioning — such as Sophie von Olfers, who was the curator of Portikus at that time, as well as Michael Krebber. Krebber’s performance each time gave me chills up my spine.

As a collaboration it was so equal. I learned from the perspective of an individual, working together. Autonomy, I suppose, is the word for what happens when strength and taking risks combines with all parties being independent and together. I felt that time stopped; the work covered all my belief systems. Anyone who made costumes performed, as well as anyone who produced, created make-up, performed, cooked lunch, etc. Most of all, the ability to make costumes was irrelevant. This is similar to my current philosophy in my studio practice, which is: the less you know about making any type of garment or anything, really the better you are suited to making it.

by Alexander Fleming

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There and Back Again /

A Letter from a Creative Carpetbagger in Mexico City

Three weeks ago, Rubén Espinosa, a young journalist who had fled Veracruz after being threaten for revealing important facts about corruption between the governor there and local narcos, was tortured and killed along with four women: Alejandra Negrete Avilés, Yesenia Quiroz Alfaro, Nadia Vera Pérez and Mile Virginia Martín.

The crime took place in La Narvarte, a neighborhood only two districts away from La Roma and La Condesa, two symbols of Mexico City’s bohemian lifestyle. For many, it was a shock to realize that parts of the capital, which had felt relatively safe until now, could be touched by the violence that has plagued the country for more than a decade.

I recently wrote a think piece for I-D about a certain creative class having found in Mexico City a new Berlin. The piece was labeled by detractors as a blatant example of “white privilege.” To summarize their criticism, Mexico City and Berlin’s respective political contexts were too different to be compared, especially given Mexico’s current situation. Describing the Mexican capital as a possible land of opportunity for a specific type of privileged individual was, purely and simply, obscene. Beyond the content of the article, in which I had indeed offered an oversimplified version of things by failing to clarify my position and voice within a particularly complex reality, some comments suggested that I had no right to write about the situation for the simple fact I was a white, European foreigner living in a safe part of the city. Flipping through books by the thinkers that had shaped my feminist consciousness — bell hooks, Judith Butler, Virginie Despentes, to name a few — I looked for answers that would justify my engagement and help me better locate my practice.

Alas, I found few. On the contrary, I had to again face the lingering question for us white feminists regarding the legitimacy (and more crucially perhaps, the methodology?) of our participation in contemporary post-colonial fights — as women and as members of the white community. I felt powerless when I had felt empowered. I had felt at home in Mexico City, along with an interracial crowd of creative workers from all over the world, my improving Spanish allowing me to connect more deeply with Mexican society than ever before. Had I dreamed up the arty, politically conscious alliance I thought I was building here along with everyone else? Or was the dramatic climate of terror reigning in the city slowly creeping up on us, successfully dividing us by affirming the hate of the other as the only solution?

My neighbor Susana Vargas Cervantes is a Mexican researcher whose main topic of investigation is the idea of pigmentocracy as applied to a variety of subjects in art and politics —a study informed by queer and post-feminist perspectives. She recently co-curated a show at the Museo Jumex with Mexican gallerist Fernando Mesta and Canadian artist Nicolas Ceccaldi, among others. The show seemed to intentionally acknowledge the subjectivity inherent in any collection, notably through the display of less famous works instead of the usual Latino “blockbusters.” Detractors accused the curators of mocking Jumex and the tastes of its owner, Eugenio Lopez. To me, on the contrary, the lesser-known artworks suggested an incommensurable humanity. Often depicting people, faces, bodies, the selection sought to engage with mankind, in all its vain imperfection, as the prime material for art. A new body of work by Bernadette Corporation exaggerates the “representational” aspect of the show. Ceccaldi chose to mimick a sort of Instagram horizontal scroll: artworks are crammed together on the wall, arranged by themes (birds, females faces) like an amateur photo album. Vargas Cervantes’s selection — the curators decided to simply juxtapose their respective endeavors — featured many “dancing” pieces and costume-related artworks, playfully asserting the mix between celebration and melancholy as a distinctive feature of queer aesthetics. Ethnicity was one aspect of the show, but for a once it was not openly thrown in your face as a sort of justification, but rather present in little touches, often in conjunction with markers of popular culture that acted as refreshing and open-ended attempts to posit class as crucial to any art discourse today.

Susana had been one of the harshest detractors of the Mexico-Berlin piece. And I was happy she honestly told me what she thought, and that we were able to discuss it together. Changing the world won’t happen in a day. But please, let’s try to dance together, respecting the infinite costumes each of us crafts in order to do so.

by Dorothée Dupuis

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Review /

Albert Oehlen New Museum / New York

“I keep nothing clean,” Albert Oehlen has said. That’s an understatement. The German painter’s 1988 move to abstraction, a transition incubated in an Andalusian retreat shared with friend and collaborator Martin Kippenberger, catapulted him into the muck — of degenerated fragments of figuration, bruisey hues, garish advertisements and other “selected abominations” — in which he has been happily swimming ever since.

Oehlen’s first New York museum exhibition reveals his perversely systematic approach to abstraction through twenty-seven works suspended between improvisation and deliberation. They are at once fluid and frozen, earnest and ridiculous.

Spread over two floors of the New Museum, “Home and Garden” takes a cue from the artist in eschewing a neat organizing principle — the chronological — in favor of something more chaotic: juxtaposition within and among groups of paintings, gathered under a title that nods to shelter magazines and sales circulars while preserving the tension of inside versus outside. The contrasts commence with two massive monochromes yoked by their daubed and smudged grays: Interior (1998) and Bad (2003), the former refusing pictorial representation while the latter frustrates its seeking with morsels of portraiture and a zeppelin-like bathtub floating atop crude, extruded claw feet.

The surrounding canvases span nearly three decades, from early self-portraits (and an underwhelming 2005 installation piece that tucks a portrait of the artist into a tiny bed) and roiling abstracts that find Oehlen experimenting with density and testing the limits of hues sordid and saturated to two explosive works, both from 2009–11, rooted in pasted advertisements. Borrowed from billboards, the collaged elements flicker through Oehlen’s signature haze of brushwork, rag-blurred plumes and finger-painted gestures that evoke a sky mottled by the dregs of a fireworks display.

At the center of the exhibition are five of Oehlen’s “computer paintings,” a series initiated in the early 1990s that evolved into the brightly colored “Switch” paintings that get a floor to themselves. Combining pixelated thickets with snaking painted marks, the black-and-white works succeed in eliciting Gustonian levels of repulsion in anyone who dabbled in clunky precursors to MS Paint. They are deliberately awkward creations made with dumbly precise tools, and by masking the limits and practical rules that Oehlen imposes on his work, these lo-fidelity all-over paintings are invitations to leave behind the world of right angles and three dimensions and to get down and dirty in the electric mud.

by Stephanie Murg

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Report /

Hard Labor and High Culture / 56th Venice Biennale

After the occupation of the Guggenheim’s local branch during the opening week of the Biennale, the Gulf Labor Artist Coalition (GLC) made a return to Venice, this time in an official capacity.

Invited by curator Okwui Enwezor, members of the coalition shied away from creating a physical installation or work of art, conscious of the risk of turning their research into a reified, albeit critical, object of contemplation — a bit like the colossal pair of phoenixes hovering above the water at the very end of the Arsenale, which were made by Chinese artist Xu Bing using the worn-out tools of migrant workers employed in the construction of the World Financial Centre in Beijing. GLC opted instead to organize a series of plenary sessions that took place in the Arena, at the Central Pavilion, during the period from July 29 to August 9th.

“Who is building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the NYU campus and the new branch of the Louvre?” By answering these simple interrogatives, GLC revealed the tawdry reality beneath the glossy surface of museum and university branches that are being built on Saadiyat Island according to the designs of starchitects such as Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid and Norman Foster. The GLC 2015 report that was released during the inaugural event made evident the shadow of hard labor lurking behind the policed veneer of high culture. The Gulf: High Culture/Hard Labor is the title of a book edited by Andrew Ross, launched on the same day. Those laboring on the construction sites, we are told, are migrant workers who arrive from poor countries heavily indebted as a result of recruitment and transit fees. Once in the UAE they are deprived of their passports, housed in sub-standard labor camps, paid much less than they were promised, and forced to endure a punishing work regime. If they protest publicly, they risk arrest, beatings and deportation.

For five years, GLC has been pressuring Western cultural brands to ensure worker protections, using a mixed strategy that combines the withdrawal from institutions — in the form of a boycott of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi initiated in 2011 — with a more nuanced form of dissenting participation, of which the contribution to the Biennial can be considered an example. The more conventionally artistic offshoot of the project can be found in 52 Weeks, a year-long campaign in which artists, writers and activists contributed a work, text or action each week to highlight the deplorable living and working conditions of migrant workers in Abu Dhabi. On a different level, the coalition has pursued direct on-site research by interviewing workers, both in India and Abu Dhabi, and visiting labor camps. It also initiated negotiations with the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, promising to lift the boycott in exchange for the acceptance of an omnibus reform providing debt relief, wage increases and the right to independent representation. In this sense, GLC behaves in a manner that is more akin to the trade union’s modus operandi. It is no coincidence that artists Walid Raad and Shaina Anand were joined on stage by representatives of the International Trade Union Confederation.

The discussion touched upon the entry bans the UAE issued against three members of the coalition — sociologist Andrew Ross and artists Walid Raad and Ashok Sukumaran. If preventing labor advocates to access workers and workplaces is nothing new in the workers’ struggles, in this case it takes the additional meaning of a curtailment of artistic and academic freedoms, thus casting a stain of illiberalism on those very cultural institutions intended to provide the UAE with a progressive facade. The crackdown on censorship, paradoxically, has drawn greater attention to the Saadiyat Island case, especially within the specialized art world. However, to turn the spotlight on international artists may have the unintended effect of obscuring the hardships endured by migrant workers and the deportations faced by those who dare to protest. “How do we make the lives, experiences and desires of the migrant workers more visible?” was precisely the question addressed by Sukumaran, Paula Chakravartty, Nitasha Dhillon and Parimal Sudhaar during the second panel discussion. How do we prevent artists and cultural workers who speak up for the disempowered from becoming screens, rather than amplifiers, of those they want to represent? Despite the specific focus on Abu Dhabi, GLC’s concern with the entanglement between contemporary art, precarious labor and global capital brings the group to extend their research to geopolitical contexts beyond the Gulf. It is in this light that we can interpret the BDS interventions staged by G.U.L.F., tracing a parallel between Gulf migrant workers and Palestinians turned into stateless workers in their own land.

A more self-referential attitude was adopted in the last two events of the series, aimed at surveying the political role of art both within and outside an institutional framework. “A New Wave of Arts Activism?” registered the resurgence of activism in contemporary art in the name of a direct agency inspired by political protests spanning from the Occupy Movement to the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter. “Who Needs Museums and Biennales?” instead tackled the ambiguities that arise due to participating in large-scale exhibitions, and the possible alternatives for dissenting participation.

If, as Adorno and Horkheimer showed us, “between the cultural heritage and enforced work there is a precise correlation,”¹ GLC’s aim is that of breaking the iron law of this predicament. They foster the principle that the freedoms of artists are connected to the rights of workers constructing and maintaining exhibition spaces.

by Elisa Adami

¹ Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Stanford University Press, Stanford (CA) 2002, 27.

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